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There’s a Big Problem With Michelin’s New Sustainability Awards

Relae chef Christian Puglisi says the guide’s “sustainable gastronomy” designation is greenwashing

FRANCE-FOOD-TOURISM-GUIDE Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to maintaining their Michelin star for 2020, the team behind Copenhagen restaurant Relae was given a new distinction from the French tire company, a green clover meant to indicate “sustainable gastronomy.” Yet executive chef Christian Puglisi, who’s bumped up against Michelin before, is hardly honored by the new designation, claiming that Michelin did little to verify his restaurant’s sustainability and that the green clover is merely an attempt at greenwashing.

Yes, Relae is dedicated to sustainability and environmentalism. It’s certified organic and operates its own farm. But Puglisi, a Noma alum, is frustrated because Michelin made no attempt to independently verify anything about Relae’s sustainability efforts, he says. They just called up the restaurant and asked for a quote.

“Yep, not an audit, not a questionnaire, not an effort.... not a critical question of any type,” writes Puglisi in a post on the restaurant’s website. “A phone conversation that gives us the right to display a clover next to our Michelin star.” A brief, vague quote on Relae’s sustainability effort accompanies the restaurant’s blurb in the guide.

Michelin introduced its green “sustainable gastronomy” symbol earlier this year along with the Michelin guide to restaurants in France. Starred restaurants, as well as bib gourmand and plate picks, are eligible for the distinction. But the clover’s exact significance was unclear from the outset. The mark “highlights chefs committed to preserving the environment,” Michelin wrote. “The sustainable initiatives of the first chefs with this distinction will be detailed and highlighted on the various platforms of the Michelin Guide throughout the year, through the creation of various content.”

In a statement to Eater, a Michelin representative added that “Restaurants considered for the sustainability recognition were initially selected based on our inspectors’ findings and research from their anonymous visits. A questionnaire and direct outreach helped finalize the establishment’s commitment and chef’s vision to publish on the Michelin Guide website.”

Relae and several of its fellow Michelin clover honorees in Denmark are certified organic, Puglisi observes, but many more are not. There’s no guidance for what restaurants might do to achieve the distinction — but then again, the guide has never been known for offering much transparency or clear criteria.

Puglisi, who has been critical of awards and rankings in the restaurant world, considers it hypocritical of Michelin to suddenly award points for sustainability when it has long prioritized an entire style of fine-dining that can be wasteful and unsustainable, in his view. From a chef’s perspective, “the core of how we think Michelin wants us to cook is wasteful,” Puglisi says. “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.”

And then there’s the issue of Michelin’s origins and ownership. The guide, after all, is the creation of a tire company, originally established to encourage more driving in France. Two Michelin stars still means “worth a detour” and three indicates “worth a special trip.” More stars — at least initially, and often still — means more carbon, adding an irony to the guide’s new role as an arbiter of sustainability.

This post has been updated to include comments from a Michelin spokesperson.

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