Out of all the restaurants reviewed in the internationally-renowned Michelin Guide (with posts haughtily maintained in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, since those are all the cities the United States has), 72 chefs have been awarded three stars, the highest rating possible. Six are women. The testers who determine the ratings are anonymous, but range widely in age, according to Jean-Luc Naret, the sixth director of Michelin Guides and the first from outside the company.
The Michelin Guide expanded into Asia, into Tokyo, in 2008, with chef Hideki Ishikawa’s Ishikawa restaurant one of the eight immediately awarded three stars.
And that’s it. The Michelin Guide appears to be the Mount Sinai of restaurant reviews. You do not question its criteria. You do not wonder about what may well have been humble origins because it seems sacrilegious to think that they were once so small. You do not talk about Fight Club.
Either that is the case, or the equally detached filmmaker, Lutz Hachmeister, decided not to seek more. He focuses on nine chefs who have three stars, or gave up three stars, like Olivier Roellinger, who didn’t want the stress of maintaining those stars, or who have two stars, but want three stars. There is surprise and joy expressed by those chefs in reflection of when they received their three stars, and then there’s Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore, who presents perhaps the homiest restaurant out of all the prestigious ones here. In her restaurant, they make the dough for pasta, but they only make the pasta when you order it. It feels like Santini is proud of the stars, but her focus is more on running a restaurant she can remain proud of, that remains a part of her family, which includes her husband, who’s the manager, and their son, who also works in the kitchen.
There are a lot of interesting things done to food in Three Stars, a lot of methods, a lot of exact shapes created from that food, such as perfect rectangles and sauces dotted just so on the plate. I liked Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, father and daughter who run Arzak, who debate over the dishes they make, who want to make the most memorable dishes, ones that will go down in the history of the restaurant. But they never argue. Once the debate is over, which never becomes an argument, it’s over. Nothing further. There’s never an angry passion for food between the two of them. There is an understanding passion, love cemented by food.
Hachmeister doesn’t go deep enough. There are other stories that could be unearthed here, even skimming the origins of the Michelin Guide, for those who don’t know it, like me, for those who don’t see it as something to Google out of curiosity, like me. He flits between kitchens, which is interesting enough for half an hour, and chefs talk about their kitchen philosophies, their visions for their food, and you realize with enough time passing that this seems more like a platform for these three-star chefs to promote themselves. Nothing more, sadly. For example, how often do these chefs think about the three stars? A few admit to the pressure of it and Roellinger is the only one who got out of it because he wanted to reconnect with food, but do they have it on their mind all the time or do they doggedly pursue their vision, looking for that moment in food that shows them that their chef life has been worthwhile? It’s never made clear. And what about the Michelin Guide itself? It expanded into Asia in response to changing times. It scaled back on emphasizing luxury dining because not everyone can afford to eat like that all the time, or at all. But what about Michelin in the age of the Internet? Granted, Dal Pescatore does have a Yelp page, but no photos, no reviews, just an address. When everyone has an opinion about where they have eaten, when you can learn about your local establishments and know for sure what’s going on there and whether it may be appealing to you, when you can weed out the bitter reviews and find useful information, how does the Michelin Guide look to thrive in this new era? That’s never answered either. For international tourists, it may have its uses since they might not readily have Internet access. But there’s only more kitchen footage, more dishes being plated, adjustments being made to taste. Ishikawa has the most interesting kitchen since it’s at his home, where his restaurant is. That only goes so far when there’s more insight from chefs that feels more like padding time than telling more stories, than giving more insight into where the Michelin Guide has been and where it might go.
First Run Features has included on the DVD biographies of all the featured chefs, a bio of Hachmeister, and a culinary film gallery that has trailers for The Raw and the Cooked, A Matter of Taste, Kings of Pastry, The Restaurateur, Pressure Cooker, Guy Martin: Portrait of a Grand Chef, and Dive!: Living Off America’s Waste. Only Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, and Eat This New York do not have trailers.
For kitchen footage, Three Stars can’t be beat. But there comes a point when it’s too much. Three Stars not only reaches that point, but creates new points along the way while spinning its wheels in mud. But then, if you’re really into this and you don’t mind seeing the same stuff over and over, it’s all for you.