When you wish upon a star

One star, two stars, three stars—6 little words that strike fear and loathing, awe and terror into the hearts of chefs around the globe.

The “Michelin star“ rating system, a system set forth by the clandestine folks of Le Guide Michelin, serves as the bible, the Torah, the Alpha, and the Omega for many of the restaurants on this trip.

A 3-star rating means so much to these restaurants: celebrity, income, future bookings, fame, and fortune… whereas anything less may mean an empty dining room, potential bankruptcy, death, destruction, and despair.

Restaurants live in fear of Le Guide:

Maître d’s and managers are perpetually on the lookout for a potential Michelin rater, and chefs scrutinize plates and sing out orders of soigné! for suspected judges.

For example, El Bulli and Akelarre are 2 restaurants that represent the best of the best in Spanish gastronomy: all of them are rated as “3 stars.” Mugaritz and El Poblet each have “2 stars,” and El Bohio has “1 star.”

We ate at all of these restaurants so far, but for those of us uneducated in the secret language of the Tire-man  some questions linger:

What the hell does it all mean?

Or more specifically, Professor Snow (Cornell people may snicker now), what is the value of greatness? What is the determining factor of those deemed “extraordinary?”

What is a perfect meal?

According to Le Guide Michelin, a single star denotes “a very good restaurant in its category”; two stars “excellent cooking, worth a detour”; and three stars, “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

Ah, if it were only so black and white.

Take the case of El Bohio: A 1-star restaurant halfway between Toledo and Madrid.
 
El Bohio entrance
This experience was INSPIRATIONAL for everyone on the trip, and not just because we are cooks, nor because we scrutinize everything from the moment we enter the restaurant.

The food had heart and soul (yes, yes I know… words only a cook would use but such words truly are the best descriptor for what we ate), the service worked in complete support of the kitchen but wasn’t perfect, and the atmosphere was less-than-stunning: the restaurant belonged to the chefs parents before he took it over. And it looks like it…

The point, dear reader, is that this place ROCKED. It is SO COMPLETELY “worth a special journey,” a moniker reserved for only 3-star places—so sayeth Le Guide (Amen).

This place was so special that Don Juan was speechless ( a TRUE feat!), hugged the chef at the end, and then entered the kitchen to applaud the cooks. No kidding.

Post-hug

A speechless Don Juan

Off to give the kitchen some love...

Off to give the kitchen some love...

Now let’s take the case of the 2-starred El Poblet:

What a beautiful, newly constructed restaurant! Stephani Robson’s head would be bouncing all over the place, her camera clicking up everything in sight:

El Poblet private smoking lounge... seperate from the restaurant!

El Poblet private smoking lounge... seperate from the restaurant!

The private smoking/lounging area at the entrance, the herb garden, the ultra-gorgeous, ultra-sleek kitchen, the modern and minimalist design.

Restaurant to the left, smoking lounge & herb garden to the right

Restaurant to the left, smoking lounge & herb garden to the right

But, alas, the food.

Whereas El Bohio presents the food of Castille-La Mancha (a cuisine of the soul) gone modern, El Poblet presents food for your brain.

It’s modern, thinker food… Arsenio Hall would say it’s “food that makes you go hmmmm.”

And while this experience was definitely inspired, this experience was NOT inspirational.

Not in the way that El Bohio moved everyone in the group (meaning different people from diverse backgrounds all independently came to this decision), and in our opinion, not in a way that would inspire “a detour” as mandated by Le Guide for a 2-star restaurant.

But let’s be fair here: The food is damn good in its own right. It’s just… thinker food. The service is outstanding in its own right. It’s just… trying SO HARD to get that third star. And the experience is damn good in its own right. It’s just… well, it just wasn’t for us.

Finally, let’s take the reclusive, no-starred Etxebarri:

 

A restaurant in a secluded mountain town of 70 people, run by a grilling fanatic and his Aussie sidekick.

Outside Etxebarri

Outside Etxebarri

We had simple food:

Homemade chorizo, croquettas, spider crabs a la braza, clams, bacalao, chuletta, and even a modern take on the ubiquitous tuna & tomato salad we see everywhere.

But, oh the love here… every detail, from the bread to the wine list to the almost religious reverence that is displayed for the mastering cuisine by fire: 

Etxebarri woodpiles... orange wood, holm oak, and others

Etxebarri woodpiles... orange wood, holm oak, and others

Exhibit #1: EACH ORDER gets its own new coals, from wood specifically paired for that course and burned to coal/held in a special holding chamber.

Spider crab a la braza... thrown onto the grill LIVE, baby.

Spider crab a la braza... thrown onto the grill LIVE, baby.

Exhibit #2: The guy has holding tanks for seafood—to keep crawly critters live until they meet their maker on the custom grill.

 
Customized Etxebarri grill... gentlemen, start your engines.

Customized Etxebarri grill... gentlemen, start your salivating.

Exhibit #3: Oh, the grill… a customized piece of stainless steel gorgeousness designed and built by Victor the Master himself.

Aaaannnddd… the lovliness includes specially designed pots and pans for cooking.

I predict Billie T is gonna’ make a pilgrimage soon…sorry Lori! 

Victor, master of fire

Sr. Victor, the master of fire

I’m not joking when I say that this place made at least 5 people from our group want to stop right there, take back our bags, and—thank you very much, ICEX and CECO—we would like to stay.

It was that good… Victor’s passion is that tangible… this place is that inspirational. 

Worth “a special journey?” How about: Your life is not fulfilled unless you go here.

One star, two stars, three stars… So what does all of this MEAN?!

For now, I can say that, for a bunch of cooks, a 1-star or no-star joint in the middle of nowhere is our choice for best restaurant over places of more prestige.

Why is that? Is it because we are jaded cooks and just want simple food? Is it because we admire and respect a guy who will dedicate his life to mastering fire?

Yeah, maybe a little of those things, but something else is true here:

Rating systems are, well, crap… what’s 1-star for Le Guide was 2 or 3 for us. Everything is subjective when it comes to this silly little world of restaurants and restaurant reviews… so go try it for yourself.

But Etxebarri REALLY WAS that good…

Chuleton love

Chuleton love

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Txiperones

Txiperones

Happiness= a cook full of grilled goodies

Happiness= a cook full of grilled goodies

 
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3 Responses to “When you wish upon a star”

  1. excellent writing, jeff. i myself am exploring this quandry here in rome. though not a chef, i have a deep appreciation for food from the soul. is it too much to ask for food that makes me cry? personally, i don’t think so. and yet, since arriving here, i’ve had only one meal that i’d count as good enough to make me smile a lot, and one slice of pizza that made me groan with happiness. come on, this is italy! aren’t i supposed to be in some sublime food paradise? i’m glad to know that chefs are also puzzled by the extreme variation between the rating systems of restaurants.

  2. Forget the stars! Sounds to me like you guys (and girl) can write your own El Guide-o with one-heart, two-heart, and three-heart ratings . . . now there are “6 little words that strike fear and loathing, awe and terror into the HEARTS of chefs.”

    I’d be scared . . . maybe I already am a little. 🙂

    Thanks for taking us all with you . . . eating at so many great restaurants, tasting all of this inspirational (often weird) food without dealing with the caloric repercussions . . . I see a three-heart diet book in the making too (“who needs to eat food, just read about it!”)

  3. Kristenettes Says:

    I was watching No Reservations tonight and Anthony was in Spain. Where did he go? Etxebarri. As I was watching I just kept saying that looks so familiar. Why is it I’ve seen that pile of wood before? So I came back to your blog and realized I read about months ago.

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