MADRID, Spain — Chefs around the world dream of being awarded a Michelin star, the most important recognition in the haute cuisine restaurant community. However, Spaniard Julio Biosca sleeps more soundly since recently giving up the star his humble restaurant, Casa Biosca, received in 2009.
Located in Fontanars dels Alforins, a tiny village in eastern Spain counting no more than a thousand inhabitants, Casa Biosca doesn't differ much from the typical Spanish restaurant, where eating and drinking means meeting friends, debating politics or soccer, and generally celebrating life.
In the morning, it serves coffee and sandwiches. But just a few hours later, in a separate space, Biosca offers high-quality, earthy wonders, like cuttlefish burgers, pork trotters and local artichoke-stem rice.
“In 2005, we decided to launch a project to add a gastronomic element to the family business that was in place since the '40s,” Biosca says. “One day a Michelin inspector came, ate, and talked with us. Two years later, we were surprised to find out that we’d gotten a star. The radius of people coming broadened, and also from outside of Spain.”
Those were happy years. But one day Biosca went to a fancy restaurant, also holding one star, and witnessed from the side of his table the “fanfare” and “stupidity” linked to the exclusive club to which he now belonged.
“I felt I was not enjoying the meal's dynamic and didn't want to offer it myself,” the chef says. “I saw how some of our customers came, not expecting an eating experience, but craving an element of surprise the restaurant was expected to provide, and photographing the dishes with their smartphones.”
Biosca then did something unexpected: He asked the prestigious guide to remove his restaurant from the list.
“I fully respect the Michelin guide. The problem is all that surrounds it: the eagerness to become number one, to step on others along the way. I was exhausted from the system and wanted to come back to the origins: having people leave my restaurant feeling happy. My life is better now. I am calmer and more satisfied.”
Biosca is not a pioneer, though. Before him, Joel Robuchon, Alain Senderens, Antoine Westermann, and Olivier Roellinger, all from France, made the same decision for various reasons. Last year, Belgian Fredrick Dhooghe followed suit, claiming a lack of freedom to develop his own cuisine.
“The customers expect a parade of appetizers when the gastronomic menu starts, in a setting that, according to them, also deserves one star. Take a shrimp croquette. People expect a starred chef to give his own interpretation of that dish. I just want to make a really good shrimp croquette,” Dhooghe argued.
Biosca's move, once again, raised the question: Are Michelin stars a blessing, a curse, or both?
What's a Michelin star?
France's Michelin company — yes, the automobile tire maker — publishes annual guidebooks awarding restaurants for excellence.
One star means very good. Two is excellent. Three, the top honor, means the restaurant is so fantastic that it’s worth traveling to.
Some foodies carry the book with them while traveling around the world. Prices at a Michelin-starred restaurant can reach several hundred dollars for a meal.
In the 2015 edition, France was once again the top-rated country, receiving a combined 609 stars. Tokyo, with 226 stars, was the most awarded city. Michelin only publishes guides for three US cities: New York, San Francisco and Chicago, which respectively host six, four, and two venues holding three stars.
The curse of the lucky
The stars have a dark side. They can become an obsession.
British chef Gordon Ramsay says he cried when his New York restaurant lost its stars, once comparing it to losing a girlfriend.
For others, just the fear of the loss can be devastating. In 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide with his hunting rifle when newspaper reports hinted that his restaurant, La Cote d'Or, might lose its coveted three-star status.
Spanish food critic for Madrid's ABC newspaper, Carlos Maribona, points out some pros and cons that come with the stars.
“More than anything else, the award helps the chef’s self esteem. Michelin stars are the top of the top. They bring reservations, and consequently, a sales increase,” he says.
But recognition has its downside: “The real cost of keeping the stars is very high. It goes hand in hand with an enormous effort in terms of staffing, installations, etc., not to mention the pressure. Chefs become very intent on either not losing it, or earning another one. Some enter into very dangerous states of mind. They feel obliged by the star and put strong pressure on themselves.”
In the seaside town of Roses, Girona, in northeastern Spain's Catalonia region, Ferran Adria obtained three stars for El Bulli for 15 years, from 1997-2011. Restaurant Magazine named it the world’s best restaurant a record five times between 2002 and 2009. What’s more, The New York Times magazine chose Adria's face to illustrate “How Spain became the new France” in the culinary world. Every year, 2 million people tried to book a table at his experimental fine dining establishment and only a few thousand managed.
In 2011, he closed the restaurant to establish “El Bulli Foundation,” a kind of umbrella organization focused on research, advising, and protecting the restaurant's heritage.
Now, Adria insists the recognition didn't change his work method. “We were never thinking about how to keep the three stars. Our interest was the pursuit of the avant garde. The pressure was about how to continue being creative,” he tells GlobalPost.
“El Bulli was not a pure business, but a research center. The three stars meant always being fully booked, but we wanted to make money outside of the restaurant.”
Profitability is one of the Michelin star paradoxes. A popular neighborhood cafe often gets, by percentage, more profit from selling coffees and pastries than a three-Michelin-starred restaurant charging $400 per person. The big margins don't come from the bills paid by smiling patrons after enjoying their meals, but from parallel activities connected to Michelin stardom, like advisory services, live cooking shows, and hotel businesses.
“Were the customers’ bills our only income, the restaurant wouldn't be profitable. Some dishes on our menu simply do not generate profit. But because of our status we get called to offer show-cooking. So here, you have to think in terms of the whole picture, and, yes, account for all the linked activities, the figures are in the black in our bank account at the end of the season,” explains Pepe Solla, owner and chef of Casa Solla, a restaurant in Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia. The eatery has held a Michelin star since 1980.
Solla admits that some efforts to keep the star hinder profits. “For example, it becomes impossible not to paint the restaurant for one or two years or not to replace a slightly torn napkin.”
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Still, he insists, seeing his name in the French guide is amazing: “Having the Michelin stars is still much more a plus than a problem. Let me be blunt here: I don't understand how someone can give up a star, because it only gives you good things.”
Pascal Remy, a former Michelin inspector for 16 years, broke his confidentiality agreement in 2004 to reveal in his book, “The Inspector Sits Down to Eat,” his view on how many top venues just don't cut the mustard. Remy describes a vicious circle of debts and pressures in which chefs “can only make what they wish when they stop thinking about what the guide would like them to do.”
“I make much more money serving a coffee than a sea bass,” concedes Carmelo Perez, director of Zalacain restaurant, a case in point. Based near the US Embassy in Madrid, ZalacaIn was the first Spanish restaurant ever to get three stars in 1987. It progressively lost them all, the last one this year. Perez doesn't hide his disappointment, but insists that long-held patrons — the Spanish Royal family among them — keep coming whatever the Michelin folks think.
“It’s enraging. I feel a bit offended. Our 42-year-long customers are angrier than me. We follow the same criteria and keep the same kitchen and staff,” Perez says.
The tasting menu price also remains untouched — around $115. “We are not going to change now, after more than 40 years,” Perez says. “The public comes here looking for the dishes they know and like. So, should new approaches be tried? OK, let's leave that for the new generation of chefs.”