This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Inventing the Restaurant: From Bone Broth to Michelin, first released on January 16, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
(SOUND OF RESTAURANT)
CYNTHIA GRABER: These are some of my happy sounds. This episode, we’re taking you to one of our favorite places…
NICOLA TWILLEY: The restaurant! “Come Dine with Me,” as they say on Channel 4.
GRABER: Nicky, nobody outside of the UK knows what that show is.
TWILLEY: Missing out.
GRABER: But anyway, we are indeed dining out this episode. And, you know, restaurants are just one of those things: they seem like they’ve been around forever.
TWILLEY: But then that can’t be true. I mean, our ancestors might have gone to each others’ caves for a bite to eat, but I don’t think there would have been a menu and wait staff. So who invented the restaurant?
GRABER: And how did the restaurant’s invention change society?
TWILLEY: Well, and how did restaurants change along with society?
GRABER: So many questions!
TWILLEY: And, as usual, we’ve got all the surprising stories and behind-the-scenes secrets. That’s right, you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber.
GRABER: Nicky, as you pointed out, our early ancestors were not sitting down to table covered with a pristine white tablecloth and listening to the day’s specials.
TWILLEY: But throughout history people on the road, away from home—they would have needed somewhere to eat.
PAUL FREEDMAN: And if you have an urban society, you need to have places where people who, say, are from the countryside and going to a market can have a meal. So there always have been taverns, inns, takeout places.
TWILLEY: That’s Paul Freedman. He’s a medieval historian at Yale and the author of a new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America.
GRABER: But it wasn’t just travelers who needed a place to eat. In medieval European cities, a lot of people didn’t have kitchens. And these city dwellers might have gone to food stalls to pick up a snack or a loaf of bread.
TWILLEY: Rebecca Spang wrote a book called The Invention of the Restaurant, and she says these kitchen-less medieval city dwellers, at least in Paris, they might even have gone out for a sit down meal.
REBECCA SPANG: We still see signs in France today for a traiteur who sells prepared foods, sort of like a caterer for takeout. These traiteurs or caterers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century also hosted meals on their own premises at specific times, so one o’clock in the afternoon for dinner.
TWILLEY: But Paul’s point is, none of these food stall, or inns, or traiteurs—none of them are really the same thing as a restaurant.
FREEDMAN: What a restaurant is that’s different from those kinds of age-old establishments is that it offers a wider choice. First, a choice of what you want to eat. It has a menu—you don’t just sort of settle for whatever they’re cooking. Second, there’s choice of times. It’s not a set meal served at a particular time. And third, choice of who you eat with. The tradition at inns is that you sort of eat at a common table or maybe you eat in your room. But the idea of separate tables for parties of three, four, two, whatever, is typical of a restaurant.
GRABER: You might have noticed—so far we’ve been talking about Europe. We’re going to be focusing on Europe and North America this episode. There are different dining out traditions in other parts of the world. This episode, we’re telling the story of the invention of the Western-style restaurant.
TWILLEY: And, actually, the weird thing is that the restaurant—it didn’t start out as a place to eat. Restaurant started out as the word for soup.
SPANG: The word “restaurant” is from the French verb se restaurer, meaning “to restore yourself.”
GRABER: And so a restaurant is a food you use to restore yourself—it’s a restorative.
SPANG: These restoratives are a sort of bouillon made with very little additional water. So what you’re basically doing is sweating a great deal of meat over fairly high heat so that it releases its juices. So, I don’t know, if you think about something like Bovril or Marmite or a bouillon cube in its most condensed form with just a bit of liquid added.
TWILLEY: So like today’s bone broth—that’s a restaurant. Or a mug of Bovril when you’re feeling sick, same idea.
GRABER: I don’t know what Bovril is.
TWILLEY: It’s like you haven’t lived, Cynthia. Bovril is a salty umami-ish meaty paste that you put on buttered toast, mostly. And then you can have a mug of it, dissolved in boiling water, when you’re feeling poorly. It is what makes Britain strong.
GRABER: For the moment, I think I’ll stick with Marmite—that’s the vegetarian version. But anyway, back to our original restorative, or restaurant. How does it transform from a soup to a place?
TWILLEY: Meet Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, an entrepreneur in 1760s Paris.
SPANG: Roze de Chantoiseau attempted a great many different start-up ventures. One of these was that he seems, or at least he was credited at the time, with having invented the restaurant.
GRABER: Roze de Chantoiseau seems to have intuited that there was a market for a place you could go to consume these restoratives, in public. He was right.
SPANG: Within just a few years there are several dozen of these so-called “restorers rooms” located chiefly in the most central, prosperous, commercial parts of Paris.
TWILLEY: Restorers rooms, or in the original French, salle de restaurants.
GRABER: And as people got comfortable with these new rooms, they just dropped the ‘salle de’ and called them restaurants.
TWILLEY: But don’t picture your local bistro here. At this point in time, in 1760s Paris, these first restaurants have this spa vibe. They’re all about health and delicate broths.
SPANG: When you go to a restaurant, you do so because you need to be restored, you’re in need of restoration.
GRABER: When something new like a restaurant is invented, there’s usually something going on in society that makes it the right, the ripe time for the invention. In 1760s Paris, people were obsessed with health and also with this idea of sensitivity.
TWILLEY: It’s all tied into to these new Enlightenment ideas about how we sense the world through our nerves and how our bodies respond to those nervous sensations.
SPANG: One way of demonstrating the acuity of one’s nerves is to be very sensitive to things.
GRABER: These restaurants started off serving just those restorative drinks, those meaty broths. But they soon added to their menu. Of course, all these dishes had to be very light for their very sensitive guests.
SPANG: They might be sensitive to different things. So from the beginning restaurateurs had to offer a variety of bouillons and the soft-boiled eggs, the rice pudding, the pasta with a little bit of butter and Parmesan to address the various sorts of sensitivities that their clientele might manifest.
TWILLEY: The belief at the time was that if a sensitive person—the kind of person who could see beauty and truth in the world—if that sensitive refined individual ate, god forbid, a steak or a big hunk of ham … well, I mean, it would overwhelm their system.
SPANG: That that food is going to sit in your stomach. It’s not going to be properly digested. It’s going to give off gases. These vapors will rise to your head. They may cause deluded thinking or they may cause you to burst into tears unexpectedly.
GRABER: If we haven’t made it perfectly obvious by the way we’ve been describing the types of people who might have been called ‘sensitive,’ these were elites who had time to read and think about art and philosophy. And they very much wanted to be seen as someone who might burst into tears if they ate a steak.
TWILLEY: And that’s why these restaurants caught on. They were a place to show the world that you were a sensitive person.
GRABER: There are a number of elements of these restaurants that are completely new. Like Paul said, you can eat a meal whenever you want. You can sit with only your friends and family, not at a big communal innkeeper’s table. You can order just what you want from a menu. This is pretty revolutionary, and it’s all to help those sensitive individuals be sensitive in public.
TWILLEY: And high society in 1760s and 1770s Paris—they loved these new restaurants.
GRABER: This public space, it wasn’t just for men, for a change.
SPANG: The culture of sensibility is a very feminine culture and the very first restaurateurs are advertising saying that this is a suitable place for ladies
TWILLEY: As time goes by, the restaurant keeps going strong—it’s not just a flash-in-the pan, 1760s fad. And a few things factor into that sustained growth. First, there’s the French Revolution. Lots of aristocrats and royal relations are becoming intimate with the sharp end of a guillotine, others see the way things are headed and get the hell out of Dodge.
SPANG: And while they have time to pack up their family jewels and some other cherished bits of property, they leave their servants behind. So we have a bunch of servants—chefs, sous chefs, pastry cooks—all of whom have been cooking at court and big aristocratic households for decades who are out of work. And what do they do? They open restaurants.
GRABER: And then something else happens. After the French Revolution, the economy wasn’t so awesome. But that made France a fantastic, inexpensive tourist destination.
SPANG: So after 1815, when British and to some extent North American travelers flock to France because it’s cheap at that point, and also because they’re just curious to see all the changes that have been wrought by the revolution and the Napoleonic era, one of the changes they see is restaurants which they find remarkable.
TWILLEY: These restaurant places—they just don’t exist in London or Philadelphia or Boston. And tourists love them—it’s like a fun thing to do when in Paris.
GRABER: By this point, restaurants have started expanding their menus, too.
SPANG: So you’re going to go out to have your bouillon and maybe in fact its effects are so miraculous that you do feel quite a bit restored. And you think that well maybe… maybe you could eat a couple of ounces of salmon or maybe some asparagus.
TWILLEY: And before you know it, you have a full menu. And suddenly restaurants are a little bit more like the places we know and love today, rather than being special broth-drinking environments for the sensitive.
GRABER: Okay, so now Paris has restaurants that we’d probably recognize as restaurants. But when did they expand beyond Paris? Paul Freedman has traced the dawn of the restaurant in the United States for his book, The Ten Restaurants That Changed America.
FREEDMAN: In America, the first real, successful restaurant that’s a restaurant, not merely a kind of place to get a meal at a set time or an inn where people can or hotel that people can stay in, is Delmonico’s in New York, and that’s in 1830.
TWILLEY: Delmonico’s was right downtown, in the heart of what is now the Financial District.
FREEDMAN: And it began as a pastry shop. Like many or most restaurants, it was opened by immigrants. In this case two brothers from the Italian part of Switzerland. Nevertheless although they were from Switzerland and although they were, you know, if you like, ethnically Italian, the restaurant was French.
GRABER: So how does a pastry shop run by two Swiss become a restaurant, and why?
FREEDMAN: I guess they decided the time was ripe to open a restaurant whose model was that of Paris. New York was rich enough, sophisticated enough, had enough people who would be willing to try this relatively new experience. And they were right in their guess.
TWILLEY: The food at Delmonico’s was an interesting mix. On the one hand, you know, given the French origin of the whole concept of a restaurant, it’s not surprising that the menu was pretty much in that same model of high-end French cuisine.
GRABER: But on the other hand, they didn’t really have much of a choice about where they got their food, because there wasn’t long-distance refrigerated shipping. So, basically, the menu was what we’d today call locavore.
FREEDMAN: They offered a menu of tremendous variety—French-inspired dishes, and then ingredients that were American, so things like lobsters, American oysters, American turtle, terrapin, which was all the rage throughout the nineteenth century,
GRABER: Paul has some dreams of what he’d like to taste from the Delmonico’s menu.
FREEDMAN: Salmon à la Rothschild, for example, which is a whole salmon stuffed with fish such as whiting and then covered with a crust and served with a champagne sauce. Canvasback duck is the one that enchants me most. Canvasback duck, like terrapin, is a Chesapeake Bay specialty. The ducks are kind of larger than normal ducks, they’re wild of course, and they would be served with some kind of celery sauce or celery accompaniment. These ducks too ate the wild celery that used to grow along the Chesapeake Bay banks. If I could sort of go back and have one dish that I’ve never had before that was a specialty of Delmonico’s, it would be the canvasback duck.
TWILLEY: So who was enjoying this canvasback duck and salmon à la Rothschild?
GRABER: Rich people. Just like at the original restaurants in Paris.
TWILLEY: No poor people could afford it, sorry. And then obviously, at this stage in American history, the crowd was mostly white. Black people, as a general rule, weren’t particularly welcome. And no kids, heaven forbid.
GRABER: And no unaccompanied women. Either alone or in groups of only women. Women were only welcome if they were accompanied by men.
TWILLEY: But the American restaurant has evolved since Delmonico’s, in ways both good and bad.
GRABER: And Paul picked nine other restaurants that symbolize some of those major changes. We can’t cover them all—for that, you should pick up a copy of the book. But we chose three that signal changes in who was welcome in restaurants. First up: Schrafft’s
FREEDMAN: What was particularly important about Schrafft’s was that it catered to those women who were not allowed into places like Delmonico’s.
TWILLEY: Schrafft’s started in New York as an ice-cream parlor. But it soon began serving sandwiches and light lunch dishes—mostly to women, on their own or in groups, taking a break from a hard day’s shopping or on an office lunch break.
GRABER: By the early 1900s, women were working in shops as cashiers or as clerks in retail or stenographers and secretaries in offices. And they wanted a nice place to eat.
TWILLEY: In other words, women were now inhabiting public life and public space more than ever before. They weren’t just domestic creatures. I mean, this is the time of the Suffragette movement. And so it makes sense for women to have a public space to eat in, too.
GRABER: There’s another interesting thing about Schrafft’s, and that’s the food. Frankly, it wasn’t thought to be particularly delicious. But up until the Civil War, there wasn’t a separation between women’s food and men’s food. Schrafft’s thought women might want to eat something different, just for them.
FREEDMAN: And that was light food, that is to say, at the time that would include things like chicken croquettes or things with cream sauces, chicken à la king or a little later cottage cheese—things that we may not think of now as light but that were certainly considered light in the early twentieth century. And then the other part of the program was ice cream. The notion is that women like to have light main courses and fancy desserts. And I’m not convinced that this is what women historically or now actually like, but I will say that my experience of Schrafft’s, which was with my grandmother, my grandmother would order cottage cheese and fruit as an entree and then top it off with an ice cream sundae or a banana split. So she definitely fit the model.
GRABER: Schrafft’s was open for many decades. So we asked people what they remember about eating there.
JAN: Well I went to Schrafft’s possibly as early as ten and sometimes as a young teenager but with my mom. I definitely remember it being a genteel place.
LISA: As far as my memories of eating at Schrafft’s, it was just more… I don’t know if I would have used the word ‘elegant’ back then, but it was, and that’s probably where I developed my great love of coffee ice cream.
TWILLEY: The thing is, ice cream and elegant tablecloths aside, Schrafft’s might have been revolutionary in the 1900s, but by the 1960s, the women’s movement had moved on.
GRABER: Paul says his mom—she had a PhD, and she worked outside of the home—she wouldn’t be caught dead in Schrafft’s.
FREEDMAN: Because it was for people like my grandmother. My grandmother didn’t work. My grandmother loved shopping. My grandmother loved playing cards and watching soap operas on TV, all things that my mother—I mean my mother loved her mother but she certainly didn’t see her as a model.
GRABER: Schrafft’s may have been undone by the women’s movement of the 60s, but there’s no doubt—it was revolutionary for women in its day. But really, when we say women, we mean mostly white women. At the start of the twentieth century, there are still a lot of people in the U.S. who don’t have a place where they are truly welcomed, a place where the food and the décor is somehow geared towards them.
TWILLEY: Schrafft’s broke ground for women, but what about African-Americans?
GRABER: And what about kids—kids could go to Schrafft’s, like Paul did and some of our listeners did. But really, it was more a thing where they were just tolerated if they were quiet and well-behaved. It wasn’t like there was a kid’s menu especially for them.
TWILLEY: So how did everyone else get their place at the table?
TWILLEY: Okay, it’s 1960 in New York City. Schrafft’s is no longer quite so cool.
GRABER: And there’s another thing happening in New York: the African-American population has exploded. This is the tail end of the Great Migration from the south. So Harlem is really booming, and Sylvia opened Sylvia’s.
FREEDMAN: It was a restaurant among a number of restaurants that served the community, the African-American community of Harlem. It was created in 1962 by Sylvia Woods who took over what had been a small luncheonette that she had worked at and she bought out the former owner.
TWILLEY: Sylvia’s customers are neighborhood folks. It was a restaurant run by a black woman and where black people felt welcomed and comfortable. And the food Sylvia served is the kind of food she grew up with, in South Carolina.
FREEDMAN: Fried chicken, smothered pork chops, chicken gizzards, chicken liver, meat loaf, roast beef—so some things that we would consider to be not so much Southern but kind of standard American food. A lot of the side dishes are very Southern, like collard greens, black-eyed peas, candied sweet potatoes.
GRABER: Until this point, African Americans hadn’t marked their food as different—they didn’t call out aspects of their dishes that made black Southern food different from white Southern food. The previous strategy was kind of assimilation. But in the 1960s, that changed. And that pride in distinctive black Southern food, that led to a new name: soul food. To Paul, this is a turning point that Sylvia’s really highlights.
FREEDMAN: Soul food is an identity marker, so it comes in the 1960s as an aspect of black cultural assertion. It’s not that integration was exactly denounced or renounced but that the identity of black people as having a culture that was separate was emphasized. And so what had previously been called Southern food or “down home” was now more identified not just with a generic South, in which case it shared a lot of attributes with white food, but became the soul of black people—the expression of their heart and of their soul through food.
TWILLEY: And Sylvia’s was a hit. It became something bigger than a restaurant—it became a symbol.
FREEDMAN: It expanded and became always a neighborhood place but also a place for local politicians, African-American entertainment and sports stars.
GRABER: Taylor Thompson grew up nearby in New Jersey. Sylvia’s is still popular today, and Taylor remembers going as a kid, a couple of decades ago.
TAYLOR THOMPSON: The difference between Sylvia’s and the restaurants in my hometown is that Silvia’s was decorated kind of like your grandmother, your great aunt’s like, dining room. And you know I mean it was like, you know, like soul food, the food that, you know, you don’t get your neighborhood diner or Red Lobster.
TWILLEY: Sylvia’s ended up being almost exclusively for black people, at least at first.
GRABER: It wasn’t on purpose, they didn’t discriminate.
FREEDMAN: Well, white people weren’t eating at Sylvia’s. The New York magazine critic Gail Greene in the 1970s visited Sylvia’s, but the way she described it at the time was as if this was an almost ill-advised adventure. She said that her editor wondered whether they weren’t recommending to their readers doing something dangerous. That is to say that presumably white readers might be tempted to go to Harlem and wasn’t that really taking your life into your own hands? So it was off the map as far as white New Yorkers were concerned.
TWILLEY: Today, bus tours filled with white people stop off at Sylvia’s in Harlem—it’s a major tourist landmark, and a stop on any politician’s campaign trail too.
GRABER: So Schrafft’s welcomed women, Sylvia’s highlighted soul food and welcomed African Americans—and later tourists—to eat in Harlem. But there’s another group that doesn’t really have an iconic restaurant that particularly caters to them yet, and that’s children.
FREEDMAN: Well, kids are a problem, because you can cater to kids but then you’re going to have trouble retaining customers who come there without kids, because kids are perceived as creating a lot of noise and disruption.
TWILLEY: And the kid issue brings us to the distinctive orange and blue triangles…
FREEDMAN: And Howard Johnson’s was, to use a term that only later came into existence, ‘family friendly,’ and designed to be family friendly. They entertained kids. They had oversized lollipops, they had cookies and the ice cream.
GRABER: That ice cream—that’s what writer and listener Maryn McKenna remembers best from her childhood.
MARYN MCKENNA: I spent most of my childhood in England, where, at the time, food was not great. My father brought us back to the States so he could take a job in Texas, which involved driving our entire family in two cars from New York all the way to Houston. On the first night that we were on the road, we stopped at a Howard Johnson’s. And as a special treat, we were allowed to have ice cream. I ordered black raspberry, which seemed a completely impossible thing that couldn’t exist. And when it arrived it was enormous and it was delicious and it was fuchsia and I ate it all.
TWILLEY: Road-tripping and black raspberry ice-cream. That’s the other big Howard Johnson’s innovation: catering to America’s new automobile culture.
GRABER: Howard Johnson’s started in New England in the 1920s as an ice-cream stand, sort of like Schrafft’s. But, by the end of the 1950s, America began to be crisscrossed by all these new interstate highways, and Howard Johnson saw an opportunity.
FREEDMAN: The idea was that you could see it, so that going 60 miles an hour you’d have enough time, plenty of time, to make your decision to slow down and to pull into the parking lot. Another way of doing that, of course, is having billboards—particularly in the period before billboards were restricted on highways. But Howard Deering Johnson, the founder of the company, considered billboards to be tacky. And so, instead of having billboards, he had a very identifiable look to the place in terms of colors—the blue and orange look, in terms of the shape of the buildings.
TWILLEY: So you can see it from the highway, kids are welcome—but what about the food at HoJos? We know there was ice cream. But was there anything else original about the food? We asked listener Scott Huler what he remembers.
SCOTT HULER: Well, I remember doing the absolute Sixties America family vacation thing, where we would pile into a Dodge or something like that, and pound, you know, hundreds of miles over these interstate highways. And then, when it was dinner time, it was Howard Johnson’s. And I just remember learning to order this mountain of fried clams which I didn’t know at the time were clam strips. But I feel like it was my first sense of like life beyond the bologna sandwich.
GRABER: Scott is not alone. When we asked listeners and friends what they remember about HoJo’s, they almost all mentioned fried clams.
FREEDMAN: It doesn’t really occur to people unless you point it out how strange this is. Fried clams are not an American staple or they certainly weren’t something that anybody had heard of until Howard Johnson popularized them, except maybe people in Cape Cod or the Maine coast, but a tiny, tiny percentage of the population that ever had any experience with them.
TWILLEY: But really, other than fried clams and the 28 flavors of ice cream, the food at HoJo’s was not exciting or gourmet. And it wasn’t supposed to be.
FREEDMAN: Quality in the first place meant predictability. And this goes a little bit against the modern aesthetic which tends to emphasize individuality and artisanal and handmade. In the period—really most of the twentieth century—the last thing the American consumer wanted was something that was handmade or artisanal or unpredictable. They associated such things with germs or uncleanliness or, you know, gristle in the food or who knows what you’re going to get if you just stopped at some random place. You knew that at Howard Johnson’s, it would be clean, that they would have the fried clams, that they would have their signature ice cream cones shaped in a triangle. All of this was both unique—that is, nobody else had fried clams like Howard Johnson’s—and eminently predictable, coast to coast.
GRABER: Paul’s point is that Howard Johnson’s basically invented the model for what we now think of as fast food. But Howard Johnson’s had an extensive menu. It had a wait staff. Fast-food restaurants built on HoJo’s success and took it a step further.
FREEDMAN: It is oriented around predictability, brand recognizability, and franchising. So in a way it’s a parent that is superseded or killed by its offspring. The fast-food restaurant repeats this model but it simplifies it radically and it is ultimately more profitable.
TWILLEY: I’m not sure that that was progress. But never mind, here we now are today, inhabiting a landscape that is packed with restaurants of all sorts, for all kinds of customers, serving all kinds of foods. So the new question is how are supposed to decide where to go?
GRABER: Actually, that was an old question. The same guy who invented the original restaurant in France? He also wrote what was kind of the first restaurant guide. Under a different name, of course.
TWILLEY: Roze de Chantoiseau! One of his other start-up ideas was basically the first Yellow Pages for Paris. And here’s where having a fancy double-barrelled name pays off: he called himself Monsieur Roze when he was running the restaurant. And when he published his guide, which coincidentally recommended visiting this fabulous new salle de restaurant, he used the name Monsieur Chantoiseau.
GRABER: Sneaky. That was in France in the 1760s. There are lots of guides today, but one of the most famous ones is the one that’s supposed to have some science behind the rating. It’s also French, just like the first restaurant.
JOHN COLAPINTO: The Michelin Guide is a remarkable guide that originated in France that rates restaurants and does it with this meticulous, almost scientific care.
TWILLEY: That’s John Colapinto, he’s a colleague of mine at The New Yorker.
GRABER: Here at Gastropod, we promise you science along with history. So we wanted to know: Is John right? Is there actually a science to the Michelin ratings?
TWILLEY: The Michelin Guide would certainly like us to think so. So let’s find out.
GRABER: But first, you might be wondering why the most famous guide in the world has the same name as the tires you buy for your car.
TWILLEY: There is a simple explanation for that: the tires and the guide are produced by the same company. And it’s kind of logical. When Michelin the tire company got started at the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of driving for pleasure and adventure was sort of new. I mean, cars were new. So the Michelin brothers had this brainwave to promote leisure driving: why not put out a guide to great restaurants you could drive to and dine at?
GRABER: This had a dual benefit. More driving, of course, means more tires, this is great for a tire company. But it also means that the money for their guidebook comes out of the tire company’s marketing budget.
COLAPINTO: They pride themselves on their total independence which derived actually from the fact that the Michelin Guide is actually funded by the Michelin tire company which is hugely wealthy and successful. So they don’t have to rely on any kind of favors from restaurants and so on, and they can pay their inspectors pretty well. They can move them around a country in order to review lots of restaurants.
TWILLEY: OK, so that’s the history of Michelin, but we promised you the science. Is there a science to their famous star system?
GRABER: That is a little difficult to figure out, because one of the things Michelin is most famous for is their complete and total secrecy.
TWILLEY: And that’s where John comes in, because he was the first journalist to ever sit down and share a meal with a Michelin inspector.
COLAPINTO: Well, it was remarkable because one of the things that Michelin sort of established in its 100-year-plus history was that they would never allow an inspector to be interviewed. And in fact, part of the culture of Michelin is that they discourage their inspectors from even telling their families that they do this because a parent, a proud parent might be tempted to boast. “Oh my Nancy is an inspector for Michelin.” And then it gets out and somehow gets back to the restaurants.
GRABER: They let him behind the curtain because in 2009, Michelin, for the first time, was expanding to the United States. And, really, they wanted some press.
TWILLEY: So John went out to lunch with a Michelin inspector who shall remain nameless. They were dining at Jean Georges, a fancy French restaurant on Central Park.
GRABER: The first thing we wanted to know is: if you want to scientifically evaluate a restaurant, how do you decide what to order?
COLAPINTO: She told me that when she sits down at a restaurant and is trying to sort of get a grasp on what this place is capable of, she said that they’re looking for something that tests the number and the quality of ingredients. And she wants something that is a little bit complex because she wants to see what the kitchen can do. She’s looking to see how they combine ingredients. As she said to me, you know, they never order something like a salad or the soup.
TWILLEY: In fact, the Michelin inspector told John that she has to order something from every course—starters, mains, dessert, etc.—and she has to finish everything on her plate.
GRABER: She often does that twice a day. I think I’d probably die.
TWILLEY: Yeah, I’m known for my heroic ability to put food away, but that is serious eating. And this is not a relaxing experience—John said she’s concentrating very hard on each bite.
COLAPINTO: I sort of plonkingly asked what she liked about this particular thing she was eating and she said, it’s not really a question of liking it or not liking it. And she said, it’s an analysis. She said, you’re eating it you’re looking for the quality of the products, their freshness, and so on. And she said, you know, they have to be top quality, like the best damn carrot you’ve ever seen. She says you’re looking at whether or not every single element was prepared, as she put it, perfectly and technically correct. And then she’s looking at the creativity. Did it work? as she put it. Was the balance of ingredients working? Was there a good and interesting texture, did everything come together in a way that was that was pleasing? Did one ingredient overpower another one?
GRABER: So then, after she’s eaten everything and thought hard—and, by the way, she isn’t taking any notes because she’s undercover!—she goes home and she writes it all up.
COLAPINTO: I think she said it could take her four hours to fill in the chart for a place like Jean Georges.
TWILLEY: These charts have all the inspector’s assessments of the quality of the ingredients, the technical perfection of the cooking, the creativity, the balance of flavors—everything to do with assessing the food. And that goes into a restaurant’s star rating. Restaurants that make it into the guide can get either a no star mention, all the way up to three stars for the food.
GRABER: Michelin recognizes that eating out isn’t just about the food. There’s a whole experience going on. So they have their inspectors evaluate the wait staff, and the ambiance, and the furnishings—overall, how great do you feel eating there? That goes into this knife and fork symbol—they call it couvert.
TWILLEY: And obviously that’s more subjective. But here’s the thing, although Michelin says the food is evaluated by stars and the ambiance by couvert ratings, and these are entirely separate things… well, sometimes that seems like, sure, that’s the theory, but actually the ambiance has an effect on the star rating, too.
GRABER: Dan Barber is the chef-owner of a restaurant in New York called Blue Hill. He also own another one outside the city called Blue Hill at Stone Barns. But the one in New York—that restaurant received one Michelin star.
TWILLEY: And actually Dan thinks that to get a second Michelin star, the things he’d have to change are to do with the ambiance, more so than the food. We’ve talked to Dan before—
GRABER: You should definitely check out that episode—it’s called Dan Barber’s Quest for Flavor.
TWILLEY: So we gave Dan a quick call. We caught him on his cellphone just as he was prepping for service, so the sound is pretty rough, sorry.
DAN BARBER: I’m not against going for second Michelin star or third star, you know. It’s not like I’m above it, you know. I would love to have more stars but I don’t know that that’s the goal of Blue Hill New York. Because, in order to get there, I think, you know, you have to do a lot of things in the ecosystem of dining that would, you know, that would take away from the experience of Blue Hill New York. I mean, including probably taking paper off the table and including probably spreading out the tables more and including, you know, different wine glasses and all the things that, you know, go into the experience of high-end dining.
GRABER: Dan thinks—and this seems to be pretty common for chefs at his level—everyone thinks that to get a second or third star, they have to have the top elements of expensive fine dining: white tablecloths, fine crystal glass, hovering waitstaff. Even though that’s not what the Michelin website says.
TWILLEY: To be fair, Michelin comes out of the French tradition—and I mean, really, let’s remember, the French did invent the restaurant. And so Dan’s point is, it makes sense that the Michelin guide tends to favor that ideal of French fine dining. That’s just its DNA, based on a hundred years of history.
GRABER: Dan doesn’t want to make dramatic changes to Blue Hill in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about Michelin a lot.
TWILLEY: Chefs get pretty obsessed about these stars.
GRABER: It’s stressful not to have a star, it’s stressful to get one and then worry about keeping it.
TWILLEY: And then there’s the matter of getting more stars. Richard Coraine is Danny Meyer’s right-hand-man for his world-famous restaurants—several of them have Michelin stars.
RICHARD CORAINE: For us, it’s not keeping them, it’s how do we get another one? And so our work is sort of directed at, okay, now how do we take the bar up even another notch.
GRABER: Chefs do believe that there is a way to hack the Michelin system. Like Dan said—he thinks he’d have to put cloth tablecloths on instead of paper and change up the wine glasses and have fewer tables to get another star. John agrees that chefs tie themselves in knots trying to second-guess Michelin.
COLAPINTO: And it’s obsessive what these poor guys go through to get the three stars.
GRABER: So Nicky, what do you think? Is there a science to the Michelin stars?
TWILLEY: I think, in as far as there’s a really rigorous process and template for evaluating the food, the way John described, sure. But how much can judging food ever be scientific, you know? And the ambiance stuff is personal, for sure.
GRABER: My feeling is, the way it’s rated, that does seem to mean that it’s mostly super-expensive French-style restaurants that get the most stars.
TWILLEY: And from the way chefs try to game the system by upgrading their stemware and their table cloths and all of that—it does seem like the line separating ambiance and stars is a fuzzy one.
GRABER: So then, what’s the point of Michelin? We asked that to everyone we spoke to this episode: Dan Barber, the chef; John Colapinto, the journalist who had lunch with an inspector; Paul Freedman, the historian. And they all had slightly different takes.
COLAPINTO: You know I don’t want to sound like an old crank but I’m an old crank. Just the levels of expertise that that person brings to an understanding of what restaurants are doing makes a Michelin inspector’s evaluation of a restaurant, to my mind, you know, exponentially better than Joe Blow who, “Yeah, I like to go to a lot of restaurants, I know what a good restaurant is, I know what I like.” You know, I’m sorry, I really think they bring something to the table.
TWILLEY: Crank or no, John’s a full-on fan. He trusts the Michelin formula. Dan… well, Dan’s a full-on fan too, but he does see an issue with Michelin’s bias towards haute cuisine.
BARBER: So I have problems with the democracy of the Michelin thing. But, like, I also see the point of like something that has backbone. But how do you rank a three-star restaurant with, you know, Bangkok street food.
GRABER: That’s kind of Paul’s point. The world of restaurant guides has changed because the world of restaurants has changed.
FREEDMAN: I think that the Michelin Guide doesn’t actually work in countries that have such a diversity of restaurants. The Michelin Guide was designed for France at a time when you knew what you were rating. But I don’t think that the system works very well for places like New York or Tokyo or San Francisco, because how do you compare a modest Ethiopian restaurant to a high-end, farm-to-table place to a traditional French restaurant? All of this care of objectivity, anonymity system, which is a very French kind of way of ordering the universe, applies better to the European Guides. I think that the Michelin Guide for New York is, you know, maybe a source of suggestions but as an actual ranking, frankly, in my opinion, it’s borderline useless.
TWILLEY: The restaurant—and the restaurant guide—they may have started out as a French invention. But this is way bigger than France now.
FREEDMAN: Well, the decline of French cuisine as dominating the entire world definition of elegant and high-end cuisine is the big story of the last thirty years. And it’s not that France has ceased to produce wonderful cuisine. It’s just that it doesn’t define it anymore.
GRABER: And, actually, I think that’s pretty great. France has delightful food, but so do a lot of countries and culinary traditions.
TWILLEY: Restaurants have made a lot of progress in terms of catering for a much broader range of the population, too. And that’s really, really important. But not everything in the world of restaurants has improved in the past century and a half. I mean, just think back to the Delmonico’s menu, with its fabulous range of local, wild food.
FREEDMAN: Well, I think we’re accustomed to thinking that we live in the best possible or best historically real world of American cuisine. Never have there been so many restaurants. Never has there been so much attention to ingredients, never have there been so many chefs who are creative and celebrated. But if there was one purpose I had in mind in doing this project, because I’m a historian, it was to call attention to the fact that the past has many enviable qualities. You know, that when the planet had only five hundred million people instead of eight billion, the environment was richer and easier to exploit and offered things that we can only dream about.
GRABER: I’m now drooling imagining Delmonico’s wild duck and wild celery. So, at the time they were locavore because they had to be. Now locavore is making a come-back—because it’s what diners actually want. We’re circling back to the origins of our restaurants.
TWILLEY: According to Rebecca, that’s not the only way restaurants are coming full circle.
SPANG: How many restaurant menus indicate which dishes are vegetarian? Which ones are low carb? Which ones are gluten free? There are so many different sensitivities, sensibilities, that restaurant patrons today feel and considered to be legitimate medical conditions and they probably are. So I do think that people’s attentiveness to their individual medicalized sensibilities is something that has much in common with the culture in which restaurants were invented in the first place.
TWILLEY: Since it was invented, two hundred and fifty years ago, the restaurant has made great strides. You have restaurants for all sorts of people, run by all sorts of people, and catering to all levels of income and all kinds of different tastes.
GRABER: Which is awesome. But of course this isn’t restaurant utopia here. There are still all sorts of problems at restaurants, too: the pay, the whole system of tipping, the divide between the kitchen staff and the wait staff, the working conditions. These are all issues that, trust us, we’re going to come back to these in future episodes.
TWILLEY: And that’s really why restaurants matter. Because the restaurant as a public space—it ends up reflecting a lot of where we’re at as a society.
GRABER: Thanks to Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, and Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to John Colapinto at The New Yorker, to chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Richard Coraine of Union Square Hospitality Group.
GRABER: Thanks to our friends and listeners for sharing their restaurant remembrances with us. We’ll be back in two weeks with episode all about chocolate. I can hardly wait!