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Star power

Local chefs dish about the pressures and rewards of earning a Michelin star

Baumé chef Bruno Chemel has held two Michelin stars since 2011. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Losing its Michelin star in 2015 was a moment of reckoning for Madera in Menlo Park.

No stone went unturned, from purchasing new carpeting, glassware and napkins to refocusing the menu. A new chef de cuisine was hired as the kitchen saw significant turnover and a downturn in business.

"It was a very sobering moment," said Reylon Agustin, who was executive sous chef at the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel restaurant at the time. "As a resume-builder, you don't want to be part of the restaurant that lost the star."

Madera regained its star last year, rejoining an exclusive club. Many chefs see Michelin stars as the most important accolade in the restaurant business -- more than one restaurateur interviewed for this article referred to it as the industry's Oscars.

Chefs say the rating drives them to perform at higher levels and translates into benefits both tangible and intangible for restaurants. But their relationships with the ranking are complex. Michelin holds enormous sway in kitchens -- one local chef said he thinks about the star "constantly" -- while others insist it doesn't drive their decisions.

Following the most recent Bay Area Michelin stars announcement in October, the Weekly spoke with Peninsula chefs and restaurant owners about the significance of the sought-after stars.

The rating is bestowed on restaurants across the globe each year by French tire company Michelin, which publishes the restaurant guide. For decades, Michelin only covered European restaurants, but it expanded to the United States with a New York City guide in 2006 and to San Francisco the following year.

Restaurants can earn one, two or three stars based on visits from anonymous Michelin inspectors. Michelin defines one star as "a very good restaurant in its category." Two stars means a restaurant is "worth a detour" and the highest rating is for restaurants "worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine" made from "superlative ingredients."

Many diners associate the stars with the best in fine-dining, from creative tasting menus to impeccable service.

The inspectors evaluate restaurants using five factors: the quality of the products, the mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the "personality" of the chef in the cuisine, the dollar value and consistency between visits, said Michelin spokesperson Lauren Davis.

"There isn't any other entity that chefs pay attention to," said Jarad Gallagher, executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View.

As for those who say they don't care? "They're full of sh--," he said.

The star is part of the DNA of Chez TJ, which has a reputation as an incubator for chefs who go on to open their own Michelin-starred restaurants. Chez TJ has had one star since the guide started covering the Bay Area.

The star sets an expectation that is felt throughout the restaurant, Gallagher said.

"If you are producing food that is ... putting the restaurant in jeopardy of gaining a star or losing a star, you'll hear very quickly," he said. "Cooks know how difficult it is to work in Michelin-starred restaurants. Diners have a very high level of expectation. The price point is really high. All of the expectation and pressure follows with that."

The internationally respected rating brings diners -- and dollars -- to restaurants. Gallagher calls this the "Michelin millions" effect. He said the star is worth the equivalent of about $1 million of sales in a year at Chez TJ.

The star sparked a high-profile dust-up at Chez TJ in 2009, when the restaurant's rating went down from two to one stars, leading to the very public exit of then-chef Bruno Chemel. Owner George Aviet told the press at the time that Chemel was simply "incapable of earning two stars."

Chemel left to open his own French restaurant in Palo Alto, Baumé. He set out to prove his critics wrong and quickly earned one, then two stars there, a rating he's maintained every year since 2011.

In an interview, Chemel said he has a different perspective on Chez TJ's rating drop. He saw it as earning his first star, arguing that work done before he had taken over the kitchen belonged to his predecessor. (When the guide comes out, Michelin inspectors are already visiting restaurants for the next year's ratings.)

The star seems at once meaningful and meaningless for Chemel, a native of France who grew up 30 minutes from the Michelin headquarters. His uncle worked for the tire company and his parents often took him to starred-restaurants.

Chemel said he needs no recognition and maintains impossibly high standards solely for himself and his guests. Earning two stars is a "personal reward," he said.

"I give pressure to myself to make better food and make my customer happy. I don't really work for the Michelin," he said.

Yet he's still aspiring for a third star -- a "summit" he might never reach but that motivates him, Chemel said.

Chefs described intense anxiety and pressure leading up the guide's annual announcement, which is usually made in the fall in the Bay Area. Chefs said they get a hint beforehand -- a save-the-date to a Michelin awards party -- but it's no guarantee. Some have heard of chefs who got the invitation but no star.

If a restaurant earns a star, the executive chef will get a brief call from a representative from the guide.

Peter Rudolph, the former executive chef at Madera, said there's nothing quite like getting the first-ever call from Michelin. He led the restaurant to its first star only a year and a half after opening and back to its star status after losing the rating in 2015. Rudolph has since left Madera.

"I don't think there's any greater pressure than (what) a chef puts on himself to maintain the star," he said.

Despite what chefs describe as the somewhat nebulous nature of Michelin's criteria, losing the star prompted Madera to come up with a plan for how to address what they thought might be the shortcomings that led to the downgrade.

In addition to cosmetic changes, they re-centered the menu around the restaurant's wood-fired grill (Madera means "wood" in Spanish) and moved away from techniques like molecular gastronomy, Rudolph said.

Agustin, who took over as executive chef after Rudolph left this year, insists that the Madera team wasn't "chasing the star," but rather "chasing our craft." There's a house-of-cards-like danger in focusing on an external rating with no clear definition, he said, a sentiment that was echoed by others.

"If we start to focus purely on 'this is the Michelin star and this is what we have to do to keep it,' then I think that's where we start to lose sight, because we think we know what it is but we don't," Agustin said.

"Michelin doesn't tell you, 'Do this and you'll get this," said Gallagher. "You have to come up with the path and the idea and pursue it."

At The Village Pub in Woodside, the star is important but not integral to the restaurant's identity, said Tim Stannard, the founding partner of Bacchus Management Group, which owns the one-star restaurant. The company also owns the one-star Spruce in San Francisco.

He described The Village Pub as a neighborhood restaurant focused more on serving its local diners than an external ranking.

"It's very important because of what it represents but it doesn't drive decisions we make," Stannard said. "We're obviously extremely proud to be in the club and we're very proud that our work is recognized, but we don't identify ourselves exclusively as a Michelin-star restaurant."

This doesn't mean that there aren't conversations in the kitchen, however, about whether a dish is "Michelin-worthy" or that Stannard doesn't wince at the thought of losing the star.

The company has debated going after a second star at both Village Pub and Spruce, Stannard said, but ultimately decided it would mean too sharp a departure from their identities as neighborhood restaurants.

But a new Bacchus Management restaurant coming to Redwood City next year will open with the express purpose of getting one star "right out the gate," Stannard said. It will be an upscale neighborhood restaurant like The Village Pub but with an emphasis on premium, dry-aged beef.

The restaurant will open to an evolving, more "democratic" Michelin guide, Stannard and others said.

While many diners think of a Michelin-starred restaurant as a white-tablecloth establishment with an extensive -- and expensive -- tasting menu, the times appear to be changing. This year, the Bay Area's two-star winners included restaurants like Lazy Bear, a communal dining experience that started as an underground pop-up in San Francisco, and Californios, the first Mexican restaurant in North America to earn two stars.

"It's much more interesting ways of thinking about food," Stannard said. "It's not all gold-rimmed plates and gold faucets."

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