The title of Lutz Hachmeister’s documentary Three Stars refers to the rating system the Michelin Guide uses to indicate when a restaurant is doing something so spectacular, it’s worth a special trip. For Three Stars, Hachmeister interviewed chefs tenaciously hanging on to their top Michelin rating, and chefs whose restaurants are on the rise. And he talked to an editor at the Guide itself, hearing about the evolving philosophy behind awarding stars. The result is a sprawling documentary that attempts to survey the culinary community at its most refined, and to double as a consideration of how the Guide’s recent embrace of reasonably priced food along with fine dining has made its decisions seem more frustratingly arbitrary.
Three Stars works best as straight-up food-porn. Shots of pastries being carefully portioned—or of a Danish chef sourcing his ingredients from a nearby farm— should themselves be a sensual pleasure to the foodie crowd. Hachmeister’s subjects run the gamut, from an Italian family whose “restaurant” is ostensibly their living room, to an avant-garde chef who maintains an “idea bank” containing more than 1,500 ingredients, which he freeze-dries for more intense flavors. No one approach—either more natural or more scientific—impresses the Guide’s writers more than any other. All of which means that chasing Michelin glory can be a fool’s game, and can drive an already-shaky business into bankruptcy.
But there’s a lot about the Michelin Guide and the restaurant industry that Three Stars barely touches in its too-broad overview. Hachmeister might’ve gotten what he needed just as easily by sticking to two restaurants—one upscale, one not—and going more in-depth with both. As it stands, the audience sees only fragments of how these restaurants are run and how their dishes get prepared, all connected by dry narration that wouldn’t sound out of place in a nature documentary. Some provocative questions get raised—is Michelin over-rating Tokyo restaurants? Is the Guide too aware of its own power? Isn’t it weird that this whole endeavor was started by a company whose mascot is a pudgy tire-man?—and then get bypassed, as Hachmeister skips along to yet another kitchen, and yet another dish.