I came of age as a chef during an exciting time in the food world. Many American chefs were getting their inspiration from France, where there was a sort of culinary revolution brewing. A group of chefs known as the “Bande à Bocuse,” named in honor of chef Paul Bocuse, was experimenting with a new style of cuisine designed to move away from heavy sauces and large portions and into highlighting individual ingredients for their beauty and freshness. This new style of cooking was called Nouvelle Cuisine, and it was in large part what inspired the great chefs who came of age in the late seventies and early eighties in California, such as Jonathan Waxman, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and many others.
When I landed a job in Santa Monica, California, at Michael’s, which was the French Laundry of its day, I got my first taste of what it is to cook with great skill as well as passion. I began to collect information on chefs from around the world the way other kids collect baseball cards. I could tell you who was cooking at any given restaurant in France or New York at any given time. My dream at the time was to become the best chef in the world and I would have given anything to work in a three-star restaurant in France.
The stars that were bestowed on those French restaurants I so admired were Michelin stars — conferred by critics whose judgments were published in the annual Michelin Guide, the original restaurant ratings system. The guide was started at the turn of the twentieth century, and launched the tradition of anonymous inspectors dining at restaurants to rate their quality.
I never in my wildest dreams thought that the Michelin Guide would come to the United States and start handing out stars to restaurants on American soil. They wouldn’t even go to Switzerland to acknowledge Fredy Girardet, who many professionals consider one of the greatest chefs of our time. So when the Michelin Guide released its first edition for an American city in 2005, I was profoundly affected. I was intensely aware of the fact that the talented chefs in this country who work so hard to perfect their craft were finally getting the recognition they deserved from a country that has been our biggest culinary critic for decades. I was so excited at the results of the first rounds of Michelin restaurant reviews that, at the age of 50, I actually considered going to Thomas Keller and begging him for a job, just so I would finally get my chance to work in a three-star restaurant. Then, when Chef Douglas Keane and partner Nick Peyton were awarded two stars in subsequent American editions of the guide, I was doubly proud because it meant that our little town of Healdsburg, California, had put itself on the culinary map in a big way.
These awards from the Michelin Guide are given not only for the quality of food, but also for the service, the décor, the “personality” of the food, and the consistency of the whole dining experience. In fact, the rating is split into these five parts. So for a restaurant to gain top honors, the entire operation has to be a well-oiled machine, and it takes an incredible amount of discipline to maintain that level of quality. In France, chefs have been known to commit suicide over the loss of a coveted star, or at least to spend the rest of their lives curled up in tight little balls of depression.
I hope we don’t take it so seriously in this country because, if the truth be known, these awards are primarily given to restaurants with a French flair to their concept. So let’s not diminish all of the wonderful food that is being cooked in the United States by putting our Michelin chefs on too high a pedestal.
Instead, just be glad that the French have finally given us the nod of their toques, and let’s keep on working to made things even better. With all my heart, I offer my congratulations to the recent recipients. And if any of you needs a dishwasher, I’m your man.