A rotten clover. The news of a new sustainability marker in the most prestigious gastronomic guide, the Michelin Guide, quickly went from exciting to deeply disillusioning for Christian F. Puglisi, as he learned about a phone call.

Posted on 20 February, 2020

Monday night it was showtime. The Michelin guide came out and a mix of anxiety, pressure, and expectations were released all over the Scandi food scene as the ins and outs of the year were revealed. 

This year though, the good ol’ guide is trying hard to get up to date with the rest of the world. This year, ladies and gentlemen, red is going green: The guide is starting to talk about sustainability. 

Are we gonna see a challenge put up by the most powerful entity in fine-dining and gastronomy that will make all restaurants thoroughly review their practices?

I was excited to hear that Michelin’s guide had wanted to take sustainability seriously. After decades of making chefs trim fish and meat into exact squares and perfect rolls, it was about time for some redemption, no? Are we gonna see a challenge put up by the most powerful entity in fine-dining and gastronomy that will make all restaurants thoroughly review their practices? To reconsider their sourcing of produce, their impact on the planet and let cooking connect pleasure with good and responsible practices? Please tell me, will I live to see us start making the world a better place by meticulously picking one micro herb at a time? Will we?

No. Not this time around at least. 

To ‘Young Up’ the Michelin Guide

I used to be all about the Michelin Guide – back when just over a handful of restaurants had a star in the city. Back when two stars seemed to be achievable only by half-gods. You didn’t know who the inspectors were, where they went or what the hell they wanted – they were revered and feared and very incognito. The morning of the day the guide would come out, restaurants would huddle up and invite the staff for breakfast. While expectations would build up around town you would just sit around and wait for someone that somehow knew, to call up the restaurant on the phone and bring the news. You got a star.

But in reality, most mornings in most restaurants would be like every other morning – nothing happened, nothing changed, no one got a star. That approach of non-communication seems to belong to another era.

Today the Michelin Guide has turned around and wants all the attention it can get. It has also understood the importance of the Galla – the event, the need for some showtime. So they throw a party – very much like their antagonist – the World’s 50 Best, who has succeeded in getting loads of attention from both industry and the media doing just that. The guide is following the example and just like the 50’s probably having someone paying for it. The Visit Trondheim’s finances might very well have been the greatest reason for flying chefs in from all over Scandinavia to Trondheim. 

Give ‘em something green, they would say. And the guide seemed to listen.

Stars and oversized jackets were handed out, sassy graphics were displaying the name of the restaurant with suspense and momentum as a sort of Oscars on a budget once again was trying to “young up” the guide. But if you are hungry for attention in 2020 all the communications consultants in the world would queue up to suggest you to talk about sustainable practices. Give ‘em something green, they would say. And the guide seemed to listen. 

“Those at the forefront with their sustainable gastronomy practices are highlighted by a new symbol, with the restaurant’s vision also outlined via a quote from the chef,” states the Michelin Guides homepage. 

“Interesting! What an initiative,” I thought. 

I looked through the list of restaurants receiving the new, green emblem and found Relæ among the 11 other Danish restaurants.

Then it hit me. How did we end there?

A Phone Call

I tried to rewind to whatever kind of investigation we had been a part of. How did the Michelin Guide know about our sustainable practices? How did we qualify for this fabulous new “sustainability emblem”? Or did we all just get lucky by picking up a five-clover?

I came to learn that the thorough investigation we were put through was… a phone conversation. Yeah, literally someone calling up the restaurant and asking: 

“So, you are sustainable, yes?”  

“Tell me, how?” 

“Ok, thank you.”

A simple phone conversation addressed to the chef of the restaurant. Yep, not an audit, not a questionnaire, not an effort – and by no means not a critical question of any type. A phone conversation that gives us the right to display a clover next to our Michelin star. Like 10 other restaurants in Denmark. Like 26 other restaurants in Scandinavia. Like 50 in France. 

I came to learn that the thorough investigation we were put through was… a phone conversation.

Now let me just be clear. I don’t believe that we are utterly sustainable, we do serve meat (which is not unsustainable per se, but that’s another topic), we do emit CO2, we do produce waste, we do heat the restaurant in the winter, we do use clingfilm (even though we are phasing it out), we do sometimes travel for cooking dinners and demos.

At Relæ we do put plenty of effort into making up for those issues though; we have worked exclusively with organically certified produce since 2014 by certification, we limit our waste, we make informed choices when we can, and gather information when we are not informed enough. We established a farm in 2016 to find answers to some of those questions. We have been audited, and have auto-audited ourselves for years trying to improve in all aspects and dimensions. I believe that being sustainable is a state of mind, a way of seeing the world with a deep sense of responsibility. I have always felt that this approach is hardly compatible with the traditional world of fine-dining that I never wanted Relæ to be a part of. 

The idea of perfection as a geometrical exercise reduces the most beautiful cuts of meat to ridiculous portions and punches out nature’s bountiful gifts into small dots and circles.

Continuity, standardization, perfection are simply no words that harmonize with reducing waste and sourcing natural and organic produce. The idea of perfection as a geometrical exercise reduces the most beautiful cuts of meat to ridiculous portions and punches out nature’s bountiful gifts into small dots and circles. The excessive manipulation and a wasteful, and in my taste distasteful, approach to cooking is at the very core of the fine-dining that Michelin represents. It is therefore utterly and totally unacceptable to think a phone call is enough. It’s a type of ridiculizing of our industry by the same power-structure that has been praising the opposite practices many decades by now. 

Article continues below video.

Christian F. Puglisi on the Michelin Guide’s new sustainability emblem. Watch the full video on IGTV.

Lead – Don’t Greenwash

For most of my colleagues, I know as little about their sustainable practices as the Michelin guide does, but I know for a fact that 3 of us are certified organic while 8 are not. I know I have colleagues on that list that I respect greatly for the work they do and the responsibility they take. Work and responsibility that needs much more than a phone call to understand and acknowledge. Let me remind you that this is the industry where focusing on waste products can be interpreted by picking parsley off the stem now to serve the stem and ditch the leaves. Instead, kitchens that take the chances to challenge the status quo and embrace whole beast butchery, limiting off-cuts and applying dynamic menu structures that allow for less waste should be rewarded – but also challenged to do better. 

That the Michelin Guide wakes up to take responsibility for the sustainability practices could be a dream coming true. But in a field like gastronomy, which should lead the way more than any other in making our transition into a more sustainable food system flavourful, delicious and full of great gastronomic experiences – this just does not cut it. 

Is there no-one in this industry capable of asking critical questions and taking us all a bit more seriously?

Lifting a pretty glass cloche to puff out some green smoke and sound like you care, does not cut it in 2020, dear Michelin Man. It is disrespectful towards the ones in this industry taking the current issues seriously. It is hurting the credibility of our restaurant scene to announce leaders to be “setting the standard for the rest of the world to follow”, just by them picking up the phone and saying: “Yeah, we are sustainable.” 

There is only one word for this practice, and that is greenwashing.

That not a single gastronomical journalist has asked themselves the obvious questions; how? and why? In regards to this new….let’s call it a “move” from the Guide keeps blowing my mind into pieces. Is there no-one in this industry capable of asking critical questions and taking us all a bit more seriously? 

If the Michelin Guide wants to do something about sustainability, they need to challenge us.

If the Michelin Guide wants to do something about sustainability then they need to challenge us. They need to make an effort in trying to make us make an effort. We need gastronomy to wake up and put the money where its mouth is. We know that acknowledgment and stars are HIGH currency in this industry. Make a sustainable mark, set a new standard, but make an effort in making it and reward those who are going a long way to get it. Not who picks up the phone for a quote. 

Christian F. Puglisi