In Pursuit of the Stars

On October 21st, Michelin released its list of restaurants that had earned the coveted star rating for 2016. Despite having maintained one star for the past several years, the restaurant where I work was nowhere to be found. Confusion amongst us cooks was rampant, especially since - just a few days earlier - the executive chef had brandished the unmarked black envelope containing the red invitation to the gala celebration and lifted a toast to all our hard work. But, alas, we found out the hard way that the letter is not proof of making the cut; the only way to know for certain that your restaurant has earned the distinction of the Michelin star (or stars) is to see its name in the official press release.

Just a day after the new Michelin guide dropped, the John Wells' film Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper, made its debut in New York City. Despite a strong cast and autumn release date, indicators of an attempted awards season run, the dramedy centered on a recovering drug addict and world-class chef making one last stand to prove that he's still got what it takes has been almost universally panned. Sure, the writing is noticeably weak at times, but this pales in comparison to everything that the film gets right.

The elegant cinematography is on par with that on which the acclaimed Netflix series Chef's Table is built - closeups of the deft work of skilled hands, and ingredients whose freshness practically drips through the screen. A lot of screen time focuses on presentation and plating, which, while paramount in distinguishing fine dining from other restaurants, probably bores casual viewers removed from the industry. And while Jon Favreau's Chef did a decent job portraying the camaraderie that exists in the kitchen (and not to mention scored well with critics), Burnt takes it a step further, offering full immersion into the sweat, adrenaline and pressure that pervades work on a hot line. Such is the attention to detail that the co-worker whom I watched the film with exclaimed, "They even showed a cook labeling something! You never see that in food movies."

The overall effectiveness of the film is slightly muted by its reliance on archetypal characters (addict seeking redemption, ex-convict, femme fatale, etc.), but it still has plenty to say about the current state of the industry. Chef Adam's (Cooper) initial skepticism of, and later reliance on, sous vide (a method so ubiquitous it’s invading amateur cooks' homes) is a running joke. While cross-cutting between Adam's kitchen and that of his rival Reece’s (Matthew Rhys) exposes an even more contentious divide between "old-school" cooking and molecular gastronomy. (I've never even been close to setting foot in El Bulli, but I'd guess that Reece's laboratory-like kitchen was inspired by it). The front-of-house's obsession with identifying potential Michelin inspectors may be laughable to some, but I can confirm that, at establishments frequented by such clients, we take it quite seriously.

Losing a star, or failing to get one when you think you deserve it, is not sad or unfortunate; it's tragic - devastating even. I’ll never forget the look on one sous chef’s face after the executive chef confirmed the news. (Granted, it was bound to be more poignant for him since the press release also stated that his previous place of employment had earned their second star). Particularly at the fine dining level, cooks are driven almost entirely by passion. Why else would we work ridiculous hours that most people deem impossible in environments rife with verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse for such little pay? It's not a job; it's a a livelihood.

Some critics thought that vying for a three-star rating was a weak premise. Certainly, many cooks and chefs would not openly admit that they strive for the accolades and the prestige of a Michelin rating, but the titles do carry a lot of weight that inspires them to work harder, longer and better. Others took issue that there was only one female cook, meaning that the film utterly fails the Bechdel test. But unfortunately, as a female in the restaurant industry, had there been more than one female cook it would have seemed grossly unrealistic. In this way, perhaps Burnt is merely an instance in which critics are unable to extrapolate beyond the limits of their own personal experience; fine dining or no, anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen would give the film more merit than what it has received.

Or, the film might be better interpreted as allegory. In food and in cinema, no one ever sets out to create a bad product; rather the creatives in both industries keep plugging away and hoping that people will notice, because success is so tightly coupled with public opinion and critical reception. Yet what of the tastemakers who critique the restaurants and the movies? As a writer specializing in film, I’m constantly aware of the homogeneity of opinion - particularly at festivals, where journalists seemingly compete with each other to get their iteration of the collective consensus online first. We parade around as independent thinkers, with our badges bearing the name of our respective media outlets, but come press time no one wants to be the lone dissenter. Perhaps the culinary world is not so different.  

Today marks the last day that we can call ourselves a one-star Michelin restaurant; once January rolls around, the rankings proclaimed back in October go into effect and the Michelin inspectors start doing the rounds again, gathering evidence for the 2017 guide. 

“What does it mean?” asked a younger cook, as part of a confused flurry of texts in the aftermath of the press release.

It’s dangerous to define oneself by a title like the chefs in Burnt, whose ambition threatens to swallow them whole. And even though the film is a dramatization of the industry, the truth remains that adversity draws the distinction between those who are driven and those who merely want to ride on others’ apron strings. Some cooks have already left or are planning to leave our kitchen, not because of the loss of the star, per se, but simply that turnover in restaurants is inevitable. I plan to stick around, however, so that in ten months’ time when the 2017 guide comes out, my co-workers and I will be celebrating.