‘This year, chefs are particularly deserving of their stars,’ Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guide, said during the live stream of the awards ceremony in France on 18 January 2021. Despite other hospitality-industry honours being cancelled, the French restaurant guide chose to continue bestowing its stars. The summer of 2020 would go down in history as ‘the summer between the lockdowns’. It was the summer that saw the Michelin Guide’s critics pulling double shifts, tasting and testing, so they could confer the coveted stars even in the corona year.
Just over a year after opening her restaurant Signature in Marseille, Coline Faulquier, who was born in 1989, received a star. There was no gala. No stage. Just a mask, the required social distancing and plenty of pride. ‘For me, the Michelin Guide is the holy grail,’ says the young woman, who at the tender age of 15 already knew exactly where she wanted to go and embarked on her training at the school of hotel management. ‘The star was my childhood dream. I sacrificed a lot for it, yes, but the joy of having received it makes up for everything!’ She and her team were forced to reinvent themselves during the pandemic, Faulquier says.
Like so many others over the past year, they converted their cuisine to takeaway. ‘That brought out our adaptability. We’re a gourmet restaurant and we had to pack up special creations in boxes in such a way that they would still be special after arriving in our guests’ homes.’ But actually change their cooking style because everything else had suddenly changed? Not in Coline Faulquier’s kitchen. ‘I always express authenticity on my plates. And the star won’t change me, either. I will always stay true to my values and my feelings.’ Without her team, her restaurant would never have earned the star, the chef says. ‘The strength of the entire group is so important, and I always make sure to keep my employees happy – that’s one of the keys to success.’
The star is an outcome – not the goal
Contrary to criticism of awarding the stars in the pandemic year – and the restaurant testing that precedes this – Gwendal Poullennec says that the Guide Michelin stands for the positive and supports the hospitality industry by turning a spotlight on restaurants and inviting people to return to eating out and discover new things as soon as this is possible again.
The idea of welcoming guests back into his dining room also delights top Italian chef Alfio Ghezzi, whose restaurant Senso is located in Rovereto. Less than a year after opening its doors, it boasted the red Michelin Guide plaque. It is Ghezzi’s first for his own restaurant, though he garnered 2 stars as head chef of the restaurant Locanda Margon. ‘For me, the star is a source of pride, and also of energy and hope,’ says the chef, who was born in a mountain village in Italy in 1970.
The first star he could call his ‘own’ was always his dream – although he says that it should not be the goal but rather the result of the way you cook. ‘A chef’s goal should always be to treat guests to the best food and the best hospitality possible,’ Ghezzi says. ‘It’s about focusing on the identity, the personality, of your cooking – in an authentic, spontaneous way. The star is the culmination of all these efforts and the absolute success of any chef.’ Due to the loss of their customary evening business during the pandemic, Ghezzi and his team decided to make better use of the lunchtime hours. They offer snacks and sandwiches from 10 am to 6 pm plus, between noon and 3 pm, a menu based on the region’s traditional Italian cuisine. The regional focus of his cooking is also what keeps Alfio Ghezzi’s restaurant profitable during these tough times. That’s because, in his opinion, sustainability in the form of a love of food and for the environment is directly connected to business success. ‘It’s important to me that my guests sense that.’
Something special – particularly in tough times
For chefs, the Michelin Guide inspectors are just normal guests, as they come anonymously and with no notice. It’s not just one evening that makes the difference between victory and defeat; the restaurant guide often sends inspectors on multiple occasions, who then compare their experiences and decided whether to award a star. Due to the difficulty of making a such a decision solely on the basis of takeaway food in containers, Gwendal Poullennec insisted that his critics sacrifice their summer holidays so that they could visit and evaluate as many restaurants as possible.
When Phillip Schneider and his restaurant Der Schneider in Dortmund received the news of his first Michelin star, his emotions ran the gamut from joy to sadness to anger: Joy at finally having achieved it. And anger and sadness because the current restrictions prevented him and his team from fully enjoying their success. ‘If something doesn’t happen soon,’ he says, ‘the star won’t help me either. I’ll have to close because I’ll be broke, and then I can say I once had one.’ And yet, according to the top chef with Italian roots, the accolade is something special, particularly in these tough times – also for the team at his restaurant.
Schneider had already changed the way he cooked before the pandemic hit, reversing the traditional 70:30 ratio of meat to vegetables. ‘That’s not only sustainable,’ he says, but also enables very precise calculation. Lowering the cost of goods is particularly vital to a restaurant’s survival during the coronavirus crisis, he adds. But, he says, it’s still hard these days. He simply tries to live in the here and now and uses the time he has gained due to the lockdown to work toward his other dream: his own cooking school. His dream of a star has come true. ‘It feels earned,’ he says. ‘So it was simply meant to be. All the years that were so crazy, when I worked such long hours and neglected family and friends – it was all good for something. I’m finally where I always wanted to be.’ The star, Phillip Schneider says, makes him feel he’s arrived.