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Saturday, July 13, 2024
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What Effect Does Michelin Have on a City’s Dining Scene?

Meredith Lynne/Eater

Six months after Michelin bestowed its first-ever stars upon Vancouver, BC, the local restaurant scene is readjusting

​​Back in October, Vancouver became the second city in Canada to have its own Michelin Guide. After weeks of feverish speculation, the city scored just eight one-star restaurants and 12 Bib Gourmands (the guide’s “great food at a great price” category), with 40 others on the recommended list. But after the flurry of press releases, joyful Instagram posts, and weapons-grade whining from a few who were left off the list, a somewhat altered Vancouver dining scene has emerged from the fray with hiked prices and impossible-to-score reservations.

“It’s a cash-grab for sure,” said one Vancouver chef who asked to remain anonymous. “After the guide came out, I saw a place on the recommended list charging $36 for cacio e pepe. That’s cheese, pepper, and buttered noodles. Give me a break!” Scoring a hot reservation — usually feasible a week or so in advance — now requires planning 30 to 60 days ahead for a newly Michelin-minted spot. But is this par for the course when Michelin comes to town, or just #VancouverProblems?

When the Michelin Guide landed in Florida last June for the first time, Eater Miami editor Olee Fowler says her city’s dining scene didn’t change much. “I would say Florida prices have been astronomical for a while — when Carbone opened its rigatoni was close to $30 — but we have circumstantial factors here which are unique to Florida,” she says. “We had a huge influx of people through the pandemic whose states were closed and several big splashy restaurants imported from other cities came into our markets and got stars.” Fowler says the reservation game hasn’t necessarily become more difficult, but acknowledges this may have more to do with the larger square footage of the restaurants in Miami than a lack of buzz.

Over in Toronto, which got its first-ever Michelin Guide one month before Vancouver, Toronto Star food reporter Karon Liu says that Michelin-related price hikes haven’t really been an issue. “The places that got stars were expensive already,” he says. “Restaurants across the board, awards or not, already raised prices due to ongoing inflation, so it’s hard to tell if they’re cashing in on Michelin hype or because oil costs five times more now. I’d say the latter, though, as a lot of [restaurants] are still in survival mode.”

Two of Vancouver’s newly crowned one-star chefs agree: As they see it, the price hikes are enabled — but not caused by — the guide. Published on Main was one of the most awarded restaurants in Canada last year, scoring the number one spot on Vancouver Magazine’s Best Restaurants list and Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list — not to mention one Michelin star. In February, chef Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson increased the price of his 11-course tasting menu from $125 Canadian dollars ($92) to $150 Canadian dollars ($110). On the $25 increase, he says, “[I]t’s nothing to do with Michelin — it’s just easier to justify now. There have been massive price increases across the board. Labor costs are up, even canola oil has gone up like 300 percent in the last 18 months, but I still feel a sense of guilt charging $65 for a steak and potatoes dish.”

“The star accelerated the change, otherwise we’d have done just just $10 at a time.”

J-C Poirier, chef-owner of the one-starred St. Lawrence, agrees, saying while the plan to increase prices had been in the works for a while — he upped the price of his tasting menu by 40 percent, from $89 Canadian dollars ($65) to $135 Canadian dollars ($98) in November — “the star accelerated the change, otherwise we’d have done this just $10 at a time, raising the prices every few months.” Poirier notes that along with how labor-intensive, and therefore expensive, fine dining is to produce, the cost of living in Vancouver also prompted the increase. “Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in the world. We all talk about industry issues, from mental health to affording somewhere to rent, but there’s only one way to fix it: Charge for it.”

Poirier is correct — living in Vancouver is almost impossible to pull off on a basic cook’s wage. According to Rentals.ca’s February report, Vancouver remains the most expensive city to rent in Canada, with the average price of a one-bedroom unit $2,640 Canadian dollars ($1,931) per month. Checking help wanted ads over at Job Bank Canada, line cook’s wages start around $16 to $22 per hour Canadian dollars ($11.70 to $16.10). As we’ve seen with fine dining restaurants around the world, the struggle to make those numbers add up and remain in business is all too real.

St. Lawrence sent an email out in December outlining its new pricing policy, quoting chef Poirier: “Success is not about gain, it’s about giving back to people, especially to the staff who have been loyal to me.” To that end, enhanced health benefits for staff now include extended mental health treatments, company-matched contributions to employee retirement savings accounts, and there’s a quarterly donation to designated neighborhood charities (Vancouver’s DTES, where St. Lawrence is located, is one of Canada’s poorest postcodes) for which they anticipate to reach $20,000 by the end of this year.

While Poirier, Stieffenhofer-Brandson, and other Vancouver chefs are leaning into the Michelin vibe (Published on Main’s sister restaurant, Bar Susu, which made the recommended list, began serving Michelin rosette-shaped chicken liver, and the “M” word now features heavily on most of the nominated restaurant’s sites), Liu says that Toronto restaurants are playing it cool. “The baggage that comes with Michelin rankings made a lot of restaurants, especially ones with younger chefs or places that were vocal in creating positive work environments, play down their stars and Bib Gourmand mentions. An Instagram post or two to acknowledge it, and then back to business.”

But in the midst of the cost of living crisis in Vancouver, the Michelin effect is packing service every night, even leading to reservation system meltdowns for established hot tickets St. Lawrence and Published on Main. “Our website almost crashed,” says Poirier. “I was shocked. We sold out for the whole month in almost 15 minutes.”

Stieffenhofer-Brandson says he releases two months’ worth of reservations at a time, and they typically fill up within a couple hours. “It’s amazing,” he says, plus “it really makes life easy for staffing and ordering.”

The wave of reservations in the wake of the Vancouver guide has even impacted restaurants without stars or Bib Gourmand nods. Yuwa, a popular regional Japanese restaurant that landed on Michelin’s recommended list, was forced to make changes to its reservation policy after a sharp increase in bookings — and last-minute cancellations. “We didn’t get a star, but we did get increased awareness,” owner Iori Kataoka says. “We’ve always just been a small neighborhood restaurant, but to protect ourselves, we’re having to be a little formal now.” Kataoka says a modest cancellation fee has helped immensely. She’s made sure her regulars have her contact info, too, so that the restaurant’s most loyal customers can still actually get a table.

But what of the picky Michelin-inspired newbie guests, who may be setting their expectations impossibly high? The Yuwa team is looking at investing in updates to the space, maybe even removing the table by the door. “Now people expect us to be somehow better,” says Kataoka. “The table by the door used to be okay, but now coming here is a ‘once in a lifetime’ thing!”

Stieffenhofer-Brandson says that maybe some Published on Main guests have “a level of entitlement.” The new, Michelin-aware diners “might get upset that we don’t have 20 vegan options, or a vegetarian tasting menu, but we’re not a vegan restaurant! We’ve always said, ‘Substitutions respectfully declined,’ but we have that confidence to stick to our guns now and say: ‘This is our program; if it’s not for you, that’s not on us. A lot of people want to come and enjoy this.’”

The most positive outcome from Vancouver’s post-Michelin dining high has been the impact in the kitchen and on the dining room floor. Poirier says his team has a bolstered sense of pride. “I knew we were at the level,” he says. “But this is a stamp of approval. People fully trust the Michelin Guide and it’s saying that Vancouver is part of the world-class restaurant scene.”

Kataoka agrees. “Michelin is famous, and I think it’s a good thing for the city; our staff is confident and looking forward to doing more. They feel the expectation, but to have this recommendation is great encouragement for their development.”

These benefits extend to customer experiences, too. In Miami, as in Vancouver, there’s been a noticeable leveling up in terms of service since the guide was published. “You see these places trying to up their game now,” says Fowler. “Service — notoriously crappy in Miami — is more buttoned up, they’re crumbing tables and doing other little touches you never saw before.”

Even restaurants that didn’t make the guide might find the prospect of making it next year motivation to improve. One of the surprise omissions in Vancouver’s guide was L’Abattoir, a staple for French-influenced West Coast cuisine in the city for over a decade. When director of operations Chad Clark called Michelin for feedback, he was told that the restaurant was left out thanks to an overcooked scallop. “Chef had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment when we found out that the Guide was coming to town,” Clark says. “The fact that we didn’t get a star in year one further galvanized his passion for teaching our team to understand a truly consistent commitment to the world-class execution of our culinary program.”

Almost six months have passed since awards night, and the consensus among local industry insiders seems to be that overall, Michelin has been a positive addition to Vancouver. As one restaurant manager, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “A rising tide lifts all ships. Michelin’s concept originally was to get people to travel. If they see us as a hub for a culinary experience, and people are coming here dining and enjoying themselves, that’s good for us all.

“As for people’s egos exploding, well, that’s just a problem for them; how upset can you really be if you didn’t get a star? Your doors will open the next day and you’ll still have a full book. Regardless of an award, a great restaurant is a great restaurant; a star won’t change that.”

Nikki Bayley is an award-winning freelance travel, food, and wine writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Telegraph, BC Living, and Whistler Traveller. Meredith Lynne is an illustrator and pattern designer in Detroit.

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