The Gastronaut: In Search of the Michelin Man

With the arrival of two-starred Justin Bogle in our town, some foodies say: Bring on the Michelin Guide! But we’re fine without it, thanks.

Michelin guide for Philadelphia restaurants

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

In the beginning, there was France—just this dumpy two-bit European country where everyone grubbed around in the mud, ate rocks for dinner, caught cholera and died at 34.

But over time, France became a colonial power. It went all over the globe picking fights. And everywhere they went, the French brought their armies, their ridiculous hats, their whores and, because they were French, their chef’s knives.

Everywhere they went, they pillaged the local cuisine, stole every good idea, then gave them all French names. To the French, codification was tantamount to ownership. The great French cookbook-slash-encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique? A world history of plundered cuisines.

Colonialism didn’t work out that well for the French. The fleur-de-lis came down in nation after nation—but the food got kept. France became the center of the culinary universe. The French began ranking their restaurants from best to worst in a hundred different books and surveys—the most notable of which eventually became Le Guide Michelin, or the Michelin Guide.

Currently, the Michelin Guide only reports on three American hubs: New York, Chicago and the Bay Area. Despite rumors to the contrary, no Philadelphia restaurant has ever received a Michelin star. But we now have a guy who’s shown up with a bunch of them to his credit: Justin Bogle, formerly the chef at Gilt in New York, which earned two precious stars from the Guide.

And now, there are those in the dining class who seem to think that his arrival in the city and the recent opening of his new restaurant, Avance, together make the perfect excuse for Le Guide to start sending its “inspectors” into our fair burg. Mere mention of this possibility is generally met with girlish squeals of delight: “Oh, the Guide … wouldn’t it just be darling?”

No. Leaving aside all discussion of economy, utility, and the Guide’s bias towards French restaurants, the absolute last thing Philadelphia needs right now is the Guide’s attention. We’ve got a good thing going—an up-by-the-bootstraps restaurant renaissance that’s being built neighborhood by neighborhood. Our restaurants (most of them, anyhow) are fiercely local, connected by bonds of earth and toil to their specific zip codes. Places as disparate as Avance, Laurel, Pizzeria Beddia and Han Dynasty all have one thing in common: They bring the world to our doorsteps, without any help from the French.

There’s a revolution going on in American cuisine right now—a nameless, undefined something that’s all about personal connections to food and place and the relationships between chefs and cooks and suppliers—and Philadelphia is at the heart of it. At this moment in time, we don’t need the Guide encouraging us to look beyond our own borders, or to take ourselves too seriously.

That sort of thing is better left to the French.