Worth a journey
The first time I have ever had a teacher offer me a bribe was in my high school culinary program.
My insane, quirky culinary teacher’s life dream was to go to a restaurant called The French Laundry in Napa. (We all used to joke that he had a man crush on the chef, Thomas Keller.) The legendary food writer Ruth Reichl described this restaurant as “the most exciting place to eat in America” in an incredibly memorable review in 1997. I cannot stress the importance of both the review and the restaurant on modern cuisine. In 2006, Keller became the second chef to receive three stars Michelin for more than one restaurant. Reichl and Keller both embraced the food world with a firm grip, turning it upside-down with their bare hands.
So in 2011, my culinary teacher decided to plan a vacation around a trip to The French Laundry, but the issue was that he couldn’t get in. He tried calling the restaurant for hours before finally offering $5 cash to any student who could get through.
All of his teenage students whipped out their cell phones, suddenly motivated by concrete evidence of school being directly related to money. In the very last 20 minutes of school, someone got through. My culinary teacher, who is usually reserved and poised, started dancing.
Three stars from the Michelin Guide is supposed to mean “worth a journey.” What some people don’t realize is that foodies take this very literally.
The other day I watched a documentary on Netflix about the Michelin Star rating system. Ever since I learned about it in high school, I’ve been fascinated with the star system.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Michelin star rating system, it was created in the 1900s to review restaurants around the world. It began as an incentive for Michelin tire customers to travel and it turned into something much, much bigger. Today, diners and chefs both live both in fear and awe of the Michelin guide, and some literally die over even the prospect of losing a star.
Restaurants can earn one through three stars. One star means the restaurant is worth a visit, two means it is worth a detour and three means it is worth a journey. Getting even one star is a huge deal and restaurants immediately see the result of their success with full houses and an influx of customers. The loss of a star is equally devastating.
I remember reading when Alinea became the first restaurant in Chicago to earn both three Michelin stars and also 4 stars from the New York Times. I read the Times religiously, every Wednesday, and I’d always look forward to chatting with my culinary teacher about the latest foodie happenings in New York.
Foodies take these reviews incredibly seriously, like those people who consistently post on Yelp (except on crack, injected with heroin and spiked with 5-hour energy).
In the Netflix documentary, one of the featured restaurants was in Italy. I was enthralled, especially since the chef was a woman. “Man,” I thought, “if I could go there when I’m in Italy my life would be complete. I could die so happily.”
I have never been to a Michelin rated restaurant. But immediately after this ridiculous sentiment about wanting to go, I had a gripping revelation. Someday, I will.
This whole “worth a journey” business…do I really need a guide from a tire company to tell me to make a journey?
I do not.
In Italy, the farmer’s market will be worth a journey. The trip from the stove to the kitchen table can be a journey.
Like food, a journey is the direct result of how, not why. How much time, how much effort, how much love you put into it. I hope to find a meal equally “worth a journey.” There are so many factors that make a meal worthy, some of them are more personal than a guide can ever touch.
Besides, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Italy is worth a journey for many reasons, and a Michelin star (or three) is a very small portion of that.
Italy—not a restaurant review—is worth a journey.
Comment below: what’s worth a journey for you? Food, family, the sake of travelling itself? Let me know!