Early on in the pandemic, many publications around the world – including Time Out – decided to pause critical restaurant reviews. It didn't feel right to nitpick food or service when the industry was holding on for dear life. The vast majority of us shifted our attention to shouting about amazing new meal kits and spotlighting dreamy (and sometimes outrageous) outdoor dining setups. For the most part, a critical tone was reserved for rightly exposing wrongdoing, unfair treatment and abuse in the industry.
It's why I had mixed feelings when the prestigious Michelin Guide revealed that it was checking in on restaurants in order to dish out its coveted stars for 2021. After a year of countless cancelations, it was strange to imagine masked, socially distanced inspectors critiquing a multi-course meal. Heck, many fine dining restaurants weren't even offering indoor service, opting instead for more casual takeout menus or temporarily shuttering their dining rooms.
But my mood changed as I watched Michelin stars roll out in Hong Kong and Macau, Spain and Portugal, London, the Netherlands and, most recently, Chicago. For the restaurants that are honored with stars and Bib Gourmands, it's like receiving recognition that you not only survived the worst year ever but you looked good doing it. For many, it's the ultimate seal of approval. And for diners around the world, it marks the comeback of the hospitality industry, giving foodies a new bucket list of places to check out as the world reopens.
Even with a more positive outlook, I still wanted to know more about the inspection process and what it looked like during a global pandemic. And so I found myself on an early-morning call with Gwendal Poullennec, the guide's international director, as well as Michelin's famously anonymous chief inspector. (Seriously, we've chatted twice over the years and I've never learned his first name.) Here's what they had to say about getting the job done despite – well – everything.
You both probably dined out more than most in 2020. Tell me about the overall vibe and energy of your collective dining experiences during the pandemic.
Gwendal Poullennec: [With] the impact of the Covid crisis on the industry, we feel that restaurants prove to be very resilient, managing to cope well and adding a lot of creativity and energy to overcome the difficulties. From a global perspective, we are very much impressed by all of the chefs in each city and their ability to come back and reopen quickly.
Chief inspector: From the U.S. perspective, from the beginning of the global pandemic, we paid really close attention to each market — whether that was Chicago, Washington or New York or California— we’ve been in close contact with restaurants to stay informed on their openings and closures, any new menu changes and concept pivots. Once the pause was over in the spring from the dining-in shutdown and we resumed our selection process, we did so in a very careful and appropriate manner that followed local and state health protocols for each location. And we were in fact able to complete our selection while being very careful and respectful to each of the restaurants in our selection.
Most restaurant critics paused reviewing during the pandemic, but Michelin blazed on. Why?
GP: During the pandemic, we were in constant contact with chefs and professionals from the industry, and every time I asked the question: What can the Michelin Guide do for you? The answer was always the same: Keep going. It’s recognition, it’s a way to keep the link between what they do and the community. The recovery of the industry will be made by food lovers coming back to the restaurants. Throughout the pandemic, and even before, chefs push to the next level and it’s worth it to recognize all of the progress they have made, and I think they are quite grateful for that. The Michelin Guide is about also igniting positive relations and putting the spotlight on the best places and the greatest initiatives. You can feel the envy of the food-lovers to come back to the places they know and give them the motivation to explore and go to new places for more discovery.
Did the inspection process change at all during the pandemic? Were you more willing to let things slide that were less than perfect because of the circumstances?
GP: Of course, quality and value and criteria remain unchanged. And the inspectors all around the world have been carrying on rating restaurants based on the quality of the product, the harmony of flavors, the mastery of techniques, the personality of the chef as it’s expressed in the cuisine and, of course, the consistency between visits. We have had to adapt a lot to the local situations, closings and reopenings.
CI: Historically, the Michelin Guide for Chicago as well as Washington, D.C. and New York have been released in the fall, and obviously that was a challenge this year because of the dine-in shutdown and the starts and stops of dining and the challenges that the pandemic posed on the hospitality and restaurant industry, which has been really severe. We did devote the entire calendar year to the selection, so we were able to start in January… and we were able to get a good deal of the selection completed before the shutdown occurred. Obviously, we had to pause following restrictions, but we were able to start up again in the summer once things started to reopen — and we were very careful to follow local ordinances. That gave us ample time to complete the selection, and what we found before the pandemic and as restaurants reopened was that the resiliency and creativity of the chefs was remarkable. We found places that we just really feel the need to highlight, so now’s the perfect time to represent all that hard work and resiliency that has gone on in 2020.
GP: Of course we have to adapt a lot, but without compromising our core values. The point at the end of it was just to highlight that all of these restaurants definitely deserve the distinction. They deserve recognition for making it through such a difficult time.
I don’t know about you guys, but I did a lot of takeout and delivery in 2020 – including some at-home experiences from Michelin-starred restaurants. Were takeout meals included in the inspection process?
CI: I think we’re all much more familiar with takeout now than we were a few months ago, and it’s great to see that many restaurants in our selection that typically didn’t offer it A) did it and B) found it to be an interesting new revenue stream and it may be something that will continue. But all that being said… we did not factor in takeout meals in any of our inspections.
Well, hopefully you at least got to enjoy some of the new outdoor dining setups like the rest of us?
CI: Yeah, that was interesting too. Traditionally, if the restaurant has a terrace, that’s obviously fair game. But with restaurants setting up tables on the street, yeah, that was absolutely fair game. And we found that despite the setting, what’s on the plate is most important. That was what was most impressive to us is that even with these challenges, these kitchens are turning out food that’s — whether it’s outside in a little makeshift area or on a beautiful terrace or inside — it’s the same food on the plate. It’s the same spirit of the restaurant that’s coming through. That’s really great to see.
If you had to describe the past year in one word, what would it be?
GP: There are many words to describe it.
I can think of a few not-so-nice words.
CI: I have one: Adaptability. I was amazed at the adaptability of all the restaurants in various forms. You know what? Let’s throw out a second word. I’m going to say resiliency.
GP: We are absolutely on the same [page]. The third word will be acceleration. The pandemic did accelerate and reveal a lot of trends. It was a new challenge, and many restaurants adapted. Adaptability, resiliency and acceleration from one page to the other.
Now that you’re wrapping up star selection for 2021, are you already out there scouting for 2022?
GP: Yes. The Michelin guide is already quite international, and we have a presence in 34 different countries and the inspectors are made up of more than 15 different nationalities of people, speaking all together more than 25 different languages. We are always analyzing the world because we’re always on the way to explore and reveal new destinations. At this stage, we have no announcement to make about new plans and new openings about new Michelin Guide selections.