In the U.S., it’s especially striking how quickly the guides have become the ultimate arbiter of fine dining. Michelin in this country is a relatively new phenomenon; its signature deep-red tome first appeared in New York only in 2005, with other cities following in the intervening years. But for many American chefs who worked or staged in Europe before returning home, the allure of the guide and its stars were already quite intoxicating. Michael White, chef and owner of Altamarea Group (which includes two-star Marea and one-star Ai Fiori in New York, among others), had worked and studied for years in France and Italy before opening his establishments in the U.S. “Having had the good fortune of being in restaurants that had received and held this honor for years [in Europe], it was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride for our entire team,” he says of receiving his first stars.
Even for chefs who have spent their careers stateside, the stars still carry a near-mythic quality. “I came up during a time when that was an honor reserved for restaurants in Europe,” says Chef Corey Lee. “For most of my career, the Michelin Guide didn’t even have a presence in North America, so it felt very surreal,” he says of receiving first three stars for his San Francisco restaurant Benu in 2014. And even though Benu is a small restaurant that was fortunate enough to nearly always be at capacity, the clout that Michelin stars provided only added to its desirability. “It definitely attracts more diners,” Lee says. “Not everyone uses the guide, but it helps to tap into people who are aware of Michelin—whether they are diners looking where to eat or staff thinking about where they want to work.”
But of course, a Michelin star can also carry great responsibility. The press surrounding a restaurant’s new star all but guarantees an influx of diners, some of whom may think, erroneously, that there is only one right way to embody a Michelin-starred restaurant. But the chefs and restaurateurs interviewed for this story maintain that Michelin doles out honors based on the restaurant’s current level of food and service; there is not added pressure to reinvent the menu or concept after receiving stars. “We knew we had to continue to execute the menu and style of service to the same standard we had been perfecting, now with additional attention and expectation,” says White. But rather than feeling overwhelmed by the new accolade, White used it as motivation. “It was invigorating” he says.