The Reason Michelin Stars May Be More Of A Burden Than A Blessing

More than two decades ago, British chef Marco Pierre White rocked the food stratosphere when he publicly renounced his well-earned Michelin stars and subsequently closed his namesake London restaurant in 1999. Five years prior, at the age of 32, White had rocketed to fame, becoming the youngest chef ever to achieve 3-star status. (That record has since been eclipsed by Massimiliano Alajmo's Le Calandre in Padua, Italy.) While White's decision was considered almost radical at the time, a move seen as punching back at the iconic source considered by many to be the undisputed guide to fine dining around the world, he doesn't regret his choice. In 2015, White told The Guardian, "The people who gave me Michelin stars had less knowledge than me. You have to place a value on something that is given to you. That's why it was so easy for me to walk away. They had no value for me."

While the majority of acclaimed chefs worldwide hold on dearly to their Michelin status, an increasing number of 21st-century chefs are following White's lead, but they're not stepping away from their calling. In fact, most cite the driving force behind their decision to publicly disassociate from Michelin as a yearning to get back to their roots and to rediscover the joy of cooking that made them choose a culinary career in the first place.

Seeking work-life balance

Such was the case with Belgian chef Frederick Dhooge who, in 2014, announced via Facebook that he was returning his Michelin star. His reasoning? A desire to reclaim the liberty to cook whatever he wanted to cook — even fried chicken — without being lambasted for presenting simple food. Another Belgian chef, Karen Keygnaert, cited similar reasons when she renounced her Michelin star in 2017. She subsequently shuttered her acclaimed restaurant A'Qi in Brugge, Belgium, and opened a more casual eatery, Cantine Copine. Explaining her decision to VICE, Keygnaert observed, Michelin-star status "brings along a whole circus that is already dated ... You lose the freedom to do what you want as a cook."

Exhausted by the constant pressure to deliver a Michelin-worthy wow factor, French chef Sébastien Bras decided in 2017 to take a break. While he didn't denounce his star status, the acclaimed chef contacted Michelin and told the make-or-break organization to leave him alone — at least for a little — so he could focus on the things that earned him Michelin status in the first place. At the time, Bras had been operating Le Suquet in Laguiole, France — a three Michelin-star restaurant founded by his father, Michel Bras — for a decade. According to a BBC report, Bras told the French news agency AFP, he was comfortable forfeiting some degree of fame in order to cook again "without wondering whether my creations will appeal to inspectors."

Committing to simplicity

While Michelin abided Sébastien Bras' request, omitting his restaurant in 2018, that's not always the case. It's why "renouncing" a star is more accurate than "returning" a star — Michelin doesn't acknowledge returned stars. It's a policy that chef Karen Keygnaert learned firsthand, telling VICE, "Michelin gives you a star and you can't give it back. It is a very closed and non-transparent institution. You can't even ask for an explanation. You have no right to reply; they are untouchable."

A conundrum, for sure. Even Bras couldn't keep Michelin at bay indefinitely. While Michelin honored his request and did not include Restaurant Bras in the 2018 guide, Bras was shocked to see his restaurant back in the 2019 guide, this time with two stars. He responded to the surprise via Facebook, posting, "Anyway we no longer feel concerned — neither by the stars nor by the guide's strategies. I made my point last year and I still feel the same way, with the trust of our customers."

As for the chef credited with starting the revolution? Marco Pierre White is still in the limelight, but he's running his current restaurant on his own terms. In 2018, when White opened The English House in Singapore, he preemptively asked Michelin inspectors to steer clear.