What's It Like To Get The Call From Michelin?
Sweaty palms, anyone?
July 18, 2017
As told to Richie Nakano | Collage by ChefsFeed
Ah yes, the Michelin star.
Cause for a stress dream or two, a celebratory, gleeful sabering of good Champagne in the street, and lines out the door for the foreseeable future. For many, it's a quiet career goal, something you don't want to jinx by wishing for too hard; for others, it's all just icing on the cake. Either way, you never forget the day that voice on the phone tells you you've got one (or two, or three!)
In San Francisco, a healthy dose of fog and a legendary dining scene means you're more likely to see stars on the ground than in the sky. We asked a handful of locals what they remember, and what it meant. —CF
You never expect it. I was driving back from our farm in my old beat-up ‘96 Land Rover, all filled to the brim with beautiful fresh harvested produce and I get this call and I was like, "What?" The Land Rover is a loud car. The woman on the other line just said, "Congratulations to you and your team. You've earned a Michelin star." I remember actually saying to her, "God, I hope this doesn't ruin what we've got." I thought about it afterwards like, "Oh. Did I just say that?" We were still in our T-shirt days, just rocking and rolling and the Michelin star was not going to slow us down or make or break us. I remember thinking that specifically.
Having less of that stardom, that star rating, kind of alleviates that pressure of the expectation of what a Michelin star is. I see the importance of State bird having a Michelin star—we are doing everything that a Michelin-starred restaurant would do in some ways. It's wild. It's hard to quantify that, when you have a very focused tasting menu restaurant, and then you have State Bird, which is gregarious and loud and chaotic. It's awesome that we can all live in that same place.
It was [already] not possible for us to be any busier. We were maxed out. It was like 48 seats or something like that and we were just balls to the wall, crazy busy. I don't even remember the feeling of it that day. But my staff was super stoked on it, and I was like, "This doesn't change a thing, guys. We got this for what we did, not for what we're going to do." So, I was really conscious to not all of a sudden formalize things. It was another nice mark of recognition for a job well done, and I do think that we put all the same efforts into our food. It's just how we play it so differently. The thought process, the flavor profiles, the random acts of creativity — it makes sense.
And once you get it, you don't want to fucking lose it.
And once you get it, you don't want to fucking lose it.
I wasn't bummed about not getting it right off the bat [at The Progress,] because I like the idea of earning it. Using something like a star or a rating system as a way to gauge your own personal triumphs and progress. The second year, when it came around, man, it was really exciting. The team was so pumped. What I realized is how important the rating system is for morale. That's changed my perception of it. I don't ever use that as any sort of leverage; my waiters want to wear Adidas in the dining room, I want them to feel comfortable in their own skin. I want things to be smooth and operated right. I relish that way more than having a star but it was awesome when both restaurants won it this past year. Everybody was just so excited for each other.
The call I really remember was in 2008 when we got our second star. Coi had struggled a lot when we opened because what we were doing was so different, and so unlike the normal Michelin path. Jean-Luc Naret, then the director, was so supportive and it really gave the team a lot of positive energy and inspiration.
Who was the first person you told?
My wife, because she was standing right next to me. It was Tuesday morning, we were open. I celebrated by working 15 hours—just like every Tuesday.
We were lucky in that we received our first star in our first year. We had been open for 10 months and things were going okay; we had received a good review from The San Francisco Chronicle and had a couple other positive articles in that year, but we were still struggling.
The cuisine of Californios is a very personal and contemporary interpretation of Mexican cuisine, that utilizes all the incredible purveyors of the Bay Area, in a very minimal style — and that is a somewhat complicated and confusing thing to introduce to people. Had we done something more familiar, it would have been easier, but I really wanted to do something special. I had dreamt of having a Michelin star, and I still dream of having two and even three, but I wasn't certain of anything. I had concluded that it was not going to happen.
On a Tuesday morning in late October, as I was getting ready to go into the restaurant, I got a phone call from an undisclosed phone number and it was them. In that moment, everything else faded away and with the big puffy hands of Bibendum at my back, I fell into the baptismal waters of Michelin. A weird slurry of emotions [washed] over me as I thanked the anonymous person on the other side. For me, it meant that we would probably not go out of business. I felt validated in my cuisine and my ability as a chef, I felt glad that Mexican cuisine was being given that honor. The struggle that my team and family had been through to get to that point, felt worth it.
When I got off the phone, I felt reborn. I shared the news with my wife and sister-in-law, who run the restaurant with me, and they fell to the floor, hugging, laughing, and sobbing.
Jesse Malgren | Madrona Manor
At first, you're excited. You high-five your kid and your wife and make sure you call your sous chef and your cooks. From that point on, it's keeping it. Help me keep the star.
They contact you like a week before the guy comes out. And they say, "What's the best day? The director wants to speak with you. What's the best number to get ahold of you?" You give your cell number. [Then it's like] what the hell's going on? How come they haven't called me?
Then one year, they actually didn't call me at all and I was out of cell service doing stuff with the kids on my day off. I checked Twitter and saw we had retained it. The worst. It's five in the afternoon.