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Michelin Guide plans lifeline ‘Family Meal’ event for California’s struggling restaurants

Chefs participating in Michelin North America's Family Meal
Among the renowned chefs participating in Michelin North America’s “Family Meal” event for California restaurants are, top row from left: Corey Lee, Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and bottom row from left: Nancy Silverton, Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert.
(Courtesy photos)

Among chefs participating in Michelin North America’s “Family Meal” event are Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Nancy Silverton and Gordon Ramsay.

Restaurants nationwide have been devastated by the pandemic but no place has been harder hit than California, which has led the country in permanent restaurant closures since March.

Earlier this month, Michelin Guide announced it would not release its 2020 guide of California’s best restaurants out of respect for the chefs and owners whose primary concern this year has been survival rather than winning coveted Michelin stars. Unlike in other states, California restaurants have been hit by the triple whammy of pandemic-related closure orders, a drastic drop in tourism and massive wildfires.

Of the 90 California restaurants that held Michelin stars at the end of 2019, nine have permanently closed and 14 are still temporarily closed. Fifty are offering only takeout and just 17 are now open for on-site dining.

In place of the California guide, Michelin officials will be hosting a live event online at 4 p.m. Tuesday at guide.michelinman.com. Called “The Family Meal,” the phrase restaurants use for the communal meals served to employees, the event will celebrate the California restaurant industry, raise money for California food banks and introduce the first California winners of a new sustainability awards category.

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The event also will feature the unveiling of 20 new California restaurant “discoveries” that Michelin inspectors made during their secret dining visits before the pandemic arrived this year. Among the more than 30 Michelin-starred chefs scheduled to appear on the hourlong program are Massimo Bottura, Daniel Boulud, Michael Cimarusti, Dominique Crenn, Thomas Keller, Corey Lee, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Eric Ripert, Carlos Salgado, Nancy Silverton, Curtis Stone and Alice Waters.

Dozens of workers laid off by the coronavirus shutdown showed up to receive free meals and vital supplies at Nancy Silverton’s Mozzaplex.

Nora Vass, director of food and travel experiences for Michelin North America, said the decision to cancel the 2020 California guide and host a recognition event instead came after talking at length with chefs and restaurant owners.

“It seemed like the right decision to make at this time,” Vass said. “It has been a tumultuous year for everyone. For us, it was really about keeping an eye on the industry and making sure we were there to support the industry and the consumers.”

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Michelin North America’s chief inspector, who asked to remain anonymous, said his team of inspectors have seen up close how California restaurants have been forced to change what they do, often from week to week, to keep up with the constantly changing state and county health orders this year. Although the pandemic will end eventually, he said some of the changes that owners have made in 2020 may be here to stay.

“The ramifications of the pandemic are still being felt, but it will have some influence on how restaurants operate going forward,” he said. “I think chefs are going to have to be creative in terms of their menus offering local ingredients. Takeout will continue to be a very big component. Menus, from what we’ve seen, have been pared down considerably and we expect more concise menus in the future.

“It’s definitely a time of revolution,” he said. “Despite everything, restaurants are still opening. It’s a very interesting situation, but it’s not all doom and gloom. I think the industry is working hard to get through it and that deserves recognition.”

Born in France in 1900, the Michelin Guides were initially free map books that Michelin distributed to increase demand for the company’s automobile tires. In the 1920s, they started adding 1-, 2- and 3-star ratings to restaurants in the book to signify their level of excellence in food and service. Today, there are more than 2,000 Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide. In 2019, Michelin produced its first all-California guide in recognition of the growing cuisine culture in cities outside San Francisco.

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One thing that Michelin inspectors have found in traveling the farm-rich state of California over the past two years is that many restaurants practice sustainable sourcing for their ingredients, such as buying seasonal locally grown produce and animal proteins and buying locally caught and not-overfished seafood species. California will become the first place in the U.S. where Michelin will present its new sustainability awards. The first winners will be unveiled during the Family Meal event Tuesday.

Two recently released reports measure the scale of the pandemic’s impact on restaurants. According to Yelp’s September Economic Impact Report, more than 19,000 restaurants permanently closed in the U.S. between March 1 and Aug. 31. The greatest number were in California, particularly the areas of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose. According to a Michelin report issued Friday that follows the reopenings of its starred restaurants since March 1, just 33% of the Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. had reopened as of Oct. 18. It’s the worst recovery rate of any country Michelin serves in the world, besides Poland, which tied at 33%.


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