May 17, 2017

Stars May Be Big and Bright in Texas, but None Is a Michelin

Reporting Texas

For over 117 years, receiving a Michelin star has been considered one of the highest honors for a restaurant and its chef. But what Texan epicures want to know is this: How come a state known for its regional cuisine and proliferating upscale restaurants doesn’t have a single Michelin star to its name?

Since 1900, anonymous inspectors from France-headquartered Michelin have traveled the world to review “the best of the best” restaurants to include in their Michelin Guide, a Michelin spokeswoman said in an email exchange. Exhibiting Michelin’s penchant for secretiveness, she agreed to the exchange only if she’s not identified.

“This anonymity allows the inspectors to dine just as any guest would and thus receive the same treatment,” she said. “Our inspectors make visits to restaurants to gauge the quality of cuisine offered to the everyday customer. They are not given preferential treatment and they always pay their bills in full.”

The inspectors’ evaluation is based on five criteria: quality of the products, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in the cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits.

Texas doesn’t have Michelin recognition, but it does have to its credit eateries boasting the James Beard award, one the best ways for a city to gain a reputation as a dining mecca, says Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner. The James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Award competition is a yearly contest known as the American food industry’s equivalent to the Oscars.

In 2017, Texas chefs claimed 19 spots on the semifinalist list. In the end, chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s Authentic Mexican Cuisine in Houston was the only Texas winner, awarded “Best Chef: Southwest.”

Michelin expanded to the U.S. in 2006 with the launch of a New York City Guide. Since then, the Michelin stamp of approval has served as a valued resource for U.S. restaurant-goers and travelers.

The reason there are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Texas is simple: Michelin doesn’t publish a restaurant guide in the state. Indeed, you’ll only find starred restaurants in New York City, San Francisco and the Bay Area, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where the company does publish. Globally, there are nearly 30 guides that focus on individual cities, countries or regions. There are 160 Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S.

Locations are determined by factors such as the diversity and prominence of the culinary scene, according to Michelin, and inspectors only evaluate and award distinctions to restaurants.

Not all restaurants in the guidebooks have stars. The selection of restaurants in the guide offers the best restaurants in each category, and inclusion is an honor in itself, the Michelin spokeswoman said.

Brenner said it wouldn’t surprise her if Michelin comes to Texas. But that’s not necessarily a cause for excitement. U.S. Michelin Guides are a big deal, Brenner says, but they have been far less successful and influential than the original French guides.

Brenner credits this to editorial mistakes and lack of professionalism in the U.S. Michelin guides. Guides in Las Vegas and Los Angeles were discontinued in 2010.

“The organization has been very criticized,” she said, “but it’s still … one of the accolades that a chef or restaurant can have that probably means the most.”

Not everyone is bullish on Texas’ chances of getting a Michelin nod. Texas Monthly food critic Patricia Sharpe says Texas doesn’t have what it takes to get recognition. There are very good restaurants in Houston and Dallas — Stephan Pyles’ Flora Street Café in Dallas, for example, or The Pass and Oxheart, both in Houston.

Sharpe says there aren’t enough places that rise to the level of cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

“Those cities have more restaurants and better restaurants than we do,” she said. “We have maybe a couple that are comparable … but I don’t think any of them reach the level of the very best ones in San Francisco and New York.”

Brenner says that if Michelin is expanding, it should look at Texas.

“Texas has some of the most interesting cooking in the country,” she said. “I’m not a Texas-centric person who’s never been anywhere else. The food is really exciting here. I’ve been here eight years … I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t interesting and exciting.”