Five years after the Michelin Guide first landed in Chicago, director Michael Ellis says that the tire company's esteemed restaurant guidebook is still "developing a maturity here." This year, Michelin elevated a second three-star restaurant to go with Alinea (Grace) and debuted 42 Grams at two stars, while removing Mexique's star and once again not awarding a star to Next. Ellis explained the reasons behind these decisions and why he thinks "the future of Chicago dining has never been brighter."
Last year you said it was "only a matter of time" before Chicago had another three-star restaurant. What about Grace this year gave it three stars in your eyes?
When I had dinner there last year with an inspector it was clear that Curtis Duffy and team had something special going on. We both agreed that we needed to follow Curtis and his team for the third star closely, which we did. He was able to show us that he had it all together. It was really an exciting year for Chicago and we're really ecstatic to add another three-star to the roster both in Chicago and in the U.S.
Curtis has shown us that he has a purity, a linearity, a creativity, an emotion in his food that is unique. His signature is incredible, he's using incredible ingredients, his play on textures and flavors is remarkable. We call it the "wow factor": it's unique, it's memorable, it's functionable, and the alchemy that he's able to come up with to produce it with his team was something that we found exceptional this year.
Are you looking for consistency or longevity in year two or is there something different that they did this year?
We've been following Curtis for a long time. He had two stars at Avenues and he's always shown us that he has a mastery of technique. I sent a number of inspectors from around the world to Chicago this year and we unanimously found that Grace hit the bar at a three-star level. It was a very fortuitous and happy decision to make.
How does Grace compare to other three-star restaurants in other cities both domestically and around the world?
All three-star restaurants, there's about 115 right now as we speak, they all have a singularity about them, a unique compelling signature, a chef and team in place that delivers a memorable emotional dining experience. It's always about the product, the mastering of the cooking technique, the harmony and the equilibrium of the flavors. But it's about the signature, it's about the emotion, the unifying factor whether you're eating in Paris, Spain, Tokyo or Chicago—it's that you're having a unique and memorable experience.
On 42 Grams, not a lot of restaurants get two stars in its opening year. Grace did, as did Benu (in San Francisco), and for what it's worth, Gordon Ramsay at The London. What puts 42 Grams in that rare category?
Jake Bickelhaupt has a stellar resume with a lot of the big houses in Chicago, from Alinea to Charlie Trotter's to Schwa. He was able to come up with not only a concept but also an execution that is unique. He's able to tell a story with what he's doing, the concentration of flavors that he's doing, the ingredients he gets are also unique, and he's got a real inventiveness, a creativity, an audacity with what he's doing that really impressed all the inspectors that visited.
The success of 42 Grams notwithstanding, there were no new starred restaurants even if there were new chefs at previously starred venues that retained the stars. What didn't you find in the rest of the community that some of us that we might have found?
This was a really exciting year in Chicago and if you compare it to an iceberg, Grace and 42 Grams were the tip of the iceberg above the water and there's a lot going on under the water line. There were many restaurants we were following that were just short, for one reason or another, of the star level, but it's only a matter of time before we have a big year for stars in Chicago again because Chicago continues to produce a generation of young chefs who have been trained in some of the big houses in Chicago or the major restaurants around the world. These are chefs who are picking up new techniques, the knowledge of new ingredients, the knowledge of new spices and they're adding their own artistry, their own signature. I think the future of dining in Chicago has never been brighter and that will be reflected in the future guides.
They were, absolutely. I don't like to single out particular restaurants but they're definitely on our list. There are chefs that currently have restaurants that are opening up other restaurants that we're following. There's a number of different new establishments that are doing interesting things and we're following them. Nico Osteria is definitely among them.
Last year, Bon Appetit named Fat Rice the no. 4 best new restaurant in America and it's obviously a restaurant you guys have dined at. Is (a star) something that's in the cards at one point or are they doing something that's not at your level?
They're on the right track. It's an extremely difficult exercise to have everything confirmed across the board on the menu at the star level is tricky to do. We're obviously sending inspectors quite a bit but we don't have unlimited resources; we can't dine 30 or 40 times at a restaurant. Everything has to come together that evening or that day that we're sending inspectors. But Chicago continues to overperform as far as the creativity that's coming out of the city.
Besides Graham Elliot, which obviously closed, the only restaurant to fall off this year was Mexique. What did you see at Mexique and chef Carlos Gaytan compared to years past?
That was a tough decision, we know Carlos very well. It was a great story: the restaurant was struggling, it got a star, it pulled him up and we were thrilled to see that. Unfortunately this year it was inconsistent. We went back a number of times and it just was up and down. Carlos is a great chef and Mexique is still a good restaurant but the consistency that we need to see was not there. The only thing we can tell Carlos is we hope he gets his star back next year because we know he can cook at that level.
For the fourth year in a row, no star for Next, one of Chicago's most popular and best-reviewed restaurants. What did you guys not see that some of the other local critics are seeing?
Whether they're doing a Chinese take out theme, or a Korean food truck theme, or a French bistro theme, I'm pulling these out of the air but you know the restaurant. It's a fascinating concept, it's brilliant, it's astounding, you never know what you're going to get and that's the problem. How can we give a star to a restaurant when tomorrow they may do a chicken and dumplings restaurant? They're all over the place. It's an amazing place but we just don't know what they're going to come up with next. Call us old fashioned, but for the Michelin criteria for a star, it's just not there. But we've had two-star experiences there easily and we've had no star experiences there. It remains one of the most fascinating and exciting restaurants in the country today but we have our system that we have to respect.
You talked a lot about that many great young chefs that Chicago is producing and how exciting the scene is, but there's still many less overall (Michelin) stars (in Chicago) than in New York or San Francisco. Chicago is a much smaller city than New York and maybe the scene hasn't been going as long as San Francisco, but is there another reason why there are less stars in Chicago?
It's our fifth guide in Chicago and we're developing a maturity here as well. Our experience has shown that the longer we're in a city that we think we're able to find more stars. Chicago's a unique city—you have this young generation of chefs that are coming up with some unique signatures and that's going to continue. So I think the future of dining in Chicago has never been brighter.
Eater Video: The Michelin Guide Explained | Subscribe to Eater on YouTube