Edible Monterey Bay

BACK OF THE HOUSE

THE MICHELIN EFFECT

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA

The French rating system’s new California guide is controversial, but at last the Monterey Peninsula has a seat at the table


Standing in L’Auberge Carmel’s leafy courtyard, Aubergine executive chef-director Justin Cogley tells a story about a chef dinner at the three Michelin 3-star Alléno Paris back in 2016. Diplomats were in attendance, master chefs occupied the kitchen, Monterey abalone and French lamb starred on the plate.

“They were all travelers, and it seemed like they had all driven Highway 1,” he says. “But none had stopped to eat in Carmel.”

The reason was simple: These gourmands take their turn signals from the French-born Michelin Guide and it hadn’t ever listed a Monterey Bay area restaurant, let alone awarded a salivated-after star.

This despite plenty of James Beard, Food & Wine and Forbes recognition; Michelin ratings for nearby San Francisco and Napa Valley restaurants since 2007, reaching as far south as Manresa in Los Gatos; spectacular produce befitting Salad Bowl of the World status; and exceptional wines—at one point, the area boasted the highest density of Wine Spectator Grand Award winners in one region, anywhere. That Michelin drought ended June 3, when the “red book” team announced its 2019 star recipients with a 400-person party on the lawn at Paséa Hotel in Huntington Beach.

Monterey, San Diego, Orange County, Santa Barbara and Sacramento were all considered for the first time, and Los Angeles was welcomed back after a decade-long absence and some trash-talking from both sides.

Cogley and Aubergine owner David Fink were there to see Aubergine honored with the area’s first Michelin star.

“We’re humbled to be the only one recognized between Los Gatos and Los Angeles,” Fink says. “We’ve been doing good food with great chefs for a long time and it doesn’t get any better than Justin.

“But for us,” he adds, “it’s all about our team—the kitchen and front of the house.”

Michelin awards one star for “high-quality cooking, worth a stop,” according to the guide, which began in 1900 to encourage travel and tire sales. It does two stars for “excellent cuisine, worth a detour” and three for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

After years as a professional figure skater on a couple continents, thousands of miles under him as an Iron Man endurance nut and tour guide of a kitchen staff field trip he led to Hong Kong this winter, Cogley knows something about journeys. And he makes no secret that Aubergine is embarking on one as it aims to add second and third stars. But he does pause to ground things.

“What gets missed sometimes is we’re just cooking dinner,” he says, “providing an experience that allows people to relax for a few hours at a time when the world is so stressful. That’s what’s happening.”

TOURISTS AND LOCALS

The first ever “statewide” Michelin Guide was partly the result of a collaboration with Visit California—of which the Monterey County Convention & Visitor Bureau is a contributing member—which came up with $600,000 to help fund the expansion.

Michelin Guide director Gwendal Poullennec contends it’s about a lot more than money.

“With access to many of the world’s best farms, food producers and vineyards, California cuisine is respected worldwide,” he says, “not only for the quality of its ingredients but also due to the creativity displayed by its chefs.”

MCCVB chief marketing officer Rob O’Keefe thinks the $600K was a sound investment.

“It’s an example of Visit California doing what Visit California does best: showcase California in broad but targeted ways,” he says. “California is chock full of culinary experiences—diverse, amazing, innovative experiences. Visit California wanted to put a spotlight on that, and who better to do it than Michelin?”

“Statewide” gets quotes because it’s hard to imagine Michelin scouts combing through Coalinga as intently as Calistoga. Moreover, Michelin spokespeople have conceded that Santa Cruz, most of Big Sur, San Luis Obispo County and the Santa Ynez Wine Country, among other places (including Coalinga), “were not inspected for the initial selection.” Reps do hasten to add that Michelin’s team plans to expand its reach in future editions. The California coverage means other changes for Cogley and company.

Since the announcement, they’ve welcomed chefs to eat at Aubergine much more frequently than before. Cogley is being stopped a lot more often in Whole Foods and quizzed about what products he prefers. Celebrated executive pastry chef Yulanda Santos says, “We definitely find ourselves busier.

“As a team, we are certainly proud of what we have accomplished,” she adds. “I think it shines a little bit brighter light on Carmel. Not just for Aubergine, but our whole community.”

She’s got a point. The adjustments go well beyond the new realities for Aubergine, which has long enjoyed its own reality anyway, what with the tiny amount of seats (24), targeted guest research (they have a good idea of who every person is coming through the door) and splurge-wineand- tasting possibilities ($444 for one person to go all in on food, wine, service charge and the “cheese from the cave”).

While Michelin awarded a single star to the area, it lists 17 spots total. Those restaurants include two outposts I wouldn’t be surprised to see starred next year (Lucia at Bernardus Lodge and Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn); a Bib Gourmand winner for outstanding value (Yafa in Carmel); and an intriguing range of newer but largely time-tested favorites receiving “Michelin Plate” acknowledgements.


“With access to many of the world’s best farms, food producers and vineyards, California cuisine is respected worldwide,” he says, “not only for the quality of its ingredients but also due to the creativity displayed by its chefs.”


Those are, in no particular order: Café Rustica, Pacific’s Edge (at Hyatt Carmel Highlands), Monterey Fish House, Seventh & Dolores, Akaoni, Casanova, Dametra Cafe, La Bicyclette, Cultura comida y bebida, Montrio Bistro, Paprika Café, The Sardine Factory and Pèppoli.

Michelin spokeswoman Lauren McClure says plate listings go to restaurants “inspected under the same criteria as Bib Gourmands and starred establishments.”

“For restaurateurs, it is also the hallmark of belonging to the Michelin family,” she says.

That wide range of featured restaurants is what gets MCCVB’s O’Keefe most excited.

“This puts us on another map for culinary adventure and experience, and that’s good for everybody, not just Justin [Cogley] and his team— it’s good for the whole region,” he says. “We’re getting that limelight. There’s a world of travelers who make decisions on where they go by the culinary options of their destinations.”

Seventh & Dolores executive chef Thomas Snyder has a similar perspective.

“People might skip Monterey if they only see Aubergine,” he says.

The Bib Gourmand is generally understood to be a place where three courses and a glass of wine runs no more than $40. Yafa partner Ben Khader thinks his $25 filet mignon is a big reason for the nod, which was a pleasant surprise for the cozy and colorful modern-Mediterranean spot in Carmel that Michelin calls a “clear hit among locals [that’s] spread to tourists.”

“I’m unfamiliar with their process, and I never chased this thing,” Khader says. “Some people build out whole restaurants with Michelin in mind. We’re just doing what we’ve been doing from day one, a family restaurant trying to serve the best food for the best price in the best town.”

After time at places like Chez Panisse and the 3-starred Alinea in Chicago, Post Ranch Inn’s general manager Gary Obligacion presents a contrast to Khader in terms of Michelin awareness.

He says Sierra Mar’s recent hiring of chef Jonny Black was made with the award in mind, along with plenty of other factors, such as Black’s experience working closely with restaurant-farm operations and the likes of multiple-Michelin-starred chefs Michael Tusk and Dominique Crenn.

“We’re not reaching for stars,” Obligacion says, “but if we do what we want to accomplish, they [should] come.”

He believes a real local restaurant renaissance is a few more stars away.

“The Central Coast’s not going to move the needle much or be noticed by the world until the whole area steps up its game and builds a concentration of like-minded individuals who want to build that kind of destination,” he says. “It’s not about the trappings, the silverware, linens, plates—at Alinea we did 22-course meals and you wouldn’t see a plate—it’s service and consistency of product above everything, it’s intent, it’s deliciousness, it’s execution, it’s every detail thought out.”

The cumulative—even contagious— change in quality is among the outcomes Eric Bruner is proud of. He’s director of external communications at Michelin North America.

“It’s interesting to observe the role that Michelin Guide plays in fostering a community of cuisine—giving chefs new opportunities to connect with their peers and also connecting their food with new audiences,” he says. “As we’ve watched this dynamic unfold in markets like San Francisco, we see how the presence of the guide ultimately attracts greater talent in the kitchens, which expands with the creation of new restaurants over time, which in turn attracts more customers for the community’s economic benefit.

“Seen at this level, it’s exciting to see how our work influences a whole system for the greater good.”

Yes, he isn’t objective about Michelin’s blessings, but I am optimistic myself. I’m in sync with star-worthy Bernardus executive chef Cal Stamenov when he testifies that the anticipated presence of inspectors—who train in France and are often former chefs dining anonymously—increases attention to detail. And I couldn’t agree more with Cogley when he says, “I’m extremely happy Michelin is getting past the big cities. There are amazing places out there.”

DISSENTING OPINIONS

I have plenty of issues with Michelin. I’m still frustrated by the opacity of its process. Accepting payment from regions in return for attention feels dubious. (California wasn’t the first.) I flinch at oversights in the Bib Gourmand genre (most painfully Patria in Salinas, Poppy Hall in Pacific Grove and Bistro Moulin in New Monterey). I can’t believe Passionfish doesn’t appear. I understand critiques like the one from chef Carlos Salgado of Taco María in Costa Mesa.

“There is nothing that Michelin, as a Eurocentric fantasy fiction, can contribute to the dialogue about what it means to be Californian, Angeleno or Latino American that we can’t learn from each other,” he tweeted before the June announcement, “or from the profoundly informed and inclusive work of our homegrown voices.”

Poppy Hall executive chef Philip Wojtowicz puts it more succinctly.

“Stay in f**king France,” he says.

My frustrations pale in comparison to the possibilities. Plus, I’d be a hypocrite for challenging Michelin over the years to inspect our best only to reject the results.

Besides, the debate over these issues makes for great dinner conversation.

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