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Why are there no Michelin-starred restaurants in Utah?

Michelin dining in Utah - question mark

It’s a question I see posed on various social media platforms, time and again. Why does Utah, a state with an exploding culinary scene still have no hat tips from the famous French name? When asking for local recs, many a glib commenter will often point the curious questioner to seek out California or Colorado instead. This is, of course, claptrap. I’ve spoken before briefly on the subject (over on the City Cast podcast) but never dived into the details here. So let’s discuss.

To answer the headline question it’s first worth examining what Michelin expects when it comes to grading restaurants. Per their own guidance, it might surprise many that the singular consideration is food. In stark contrast to the James Beard Awards – ostensibly the major alternative to Michelin here in the States – neither service nor ambiance is listed as a consideration. That said, a restaurant with exceptional culinary sourcing is unlikely to fill your wine glass from a box.

When it comes to what’s on the plate, the level of craft and execution dictate who gets what. The guide’s star definitions reflect its origins as a tendril of the famous tire manufacturer – and a tool to get people on the road. Fact fans might know the original guide was provided free and alongside restaurant recs had handy hints on how to replace a tire.

Stars then reflect how would-be travelers should gauge a restaurant:

  • One star – high-quality cooking, worth a stop
  • Two star – excellent cooking, worth a detour
  • Three star – exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey

Through my gluttonous years, I’ve been privileged to experience triple-starred cooking, and yes, it was worth the journey alone. Let that sink in when contemplating any local dining scene, Utah or otherwise. Would you load up the Delta app specifically for just one meal? If the very notion of dining-based travel is unfathomable, you get to stop reading now. That’s ok.

Other notable awards are bestowed by the guide too, though they receive less fanfare. A Bib Gourmand selection befits restaurants that serve “good cuisine at reasonable prices”. In practice that translates to a “three-course meal with starter, main course and dessert, within a fixed price range (which today stands at €36 in most European cities, US$40 in American cities, HK400 in Hong Kong and Y5,000 in Tokyo).”

Beyond those accolades, a Michelin-recommended title might also be doled out. According to Michelin’s Michael Ellis, it’s a “sign of a chef using quality ingredients that are well cooked; simply a good meal.” Meanwhile, a Michelin green star can also be awarded to those who are “at the forefront of the industry when it comes to their sustainable practices.”

Inspectors then are a bunch of ex-industry pros, with Michelin footing their bill for travel and dining. Their task might see them hit the road for as many as two to three weeks per month, according to former taste tester Chris Walton. Those excursions will be unrelenting feats of metabolic endurance. Meal after meal, sometimes multiple restaurant bookings per evening. Heaven to some perhaps. According to Walton though, don’t expect to get rich, “my expenses were 2000-3000 pounds per month ($2.5K – $3.8K), my salary was 600-700 pounds ($800).”

Should an inspector think they’ve hit pay dirt excellence, they’ll tip off a colleague to confirm their find. Repeated visits will then follow, with inspectors dining solo or together (always anonymously) to build a complete picture, over multiple services and seasons. Final decisions are then made by group consensus.

So how does one attract said inspectors? Being an international destination is a huge draw. London, Paris, Tokyo – the world’s best and brightest dining scenes tend to draw the experts organically. It’s worth noting at this point that the U.S. only appeared in the guide twenty-ish years ago. NYC was the first state-side to get the royal treatment in 2005.

Those endless hotels and flights don’t come cheap mind you, making the focus on global cities all the more understandable. Why haphazardly skip all over the world racking up air miles when you can tackle dozens of prime cities in one locale. It’s surely why in recent times it’s become increasingly common for regional and national tourist boards to pick up the tab.

In 2022, Florida did just that, stumping up more than a million bucks – the payment ensuring a three-year assessment of the sunshine state. Atlanta and cities in Colorado have ponied up too. The story is repeated on the international stage again and again; Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Estonia, and the United Arab Emirates, have all paid to lure the prestigious tome to their shores.

Splashing the cash merely creates a targettable blip on the radar mind you. Florida’s foray garnered a list of mainly one-star ratings, with just one eatery snagging a two-star nod. It was a largely similar story for the Mexican Michelin guide – making its first appearance this month. It’s for these reasons that the guide still carries significant heft – and why even a single star is a hard-earned effort to be sure.

With all that in mind, would it even be possible for Utah to snag a single star? In that fascinating interview with Walton, he highlights several necessary touchstones to climb the first rung on the ladder. The use of local products, presentation of dishes, and cooking craft are all core.

Walton and others also speak to consistency as a critical component. Michelin-rated restaurants really can’t afford to have an off night. So what if the head chef is on vacation, and the dishwasher is stuck on the freeway? The best of the best are expected to produce perfectly without pause.

When it comes to Utah, I’ll refrain from naming names, because frankly, that wouldn’t be fair. But yes, if you look at the best of what Utah can plate – there’s plenty to admire. Talented kitchens working with great products, I can name plenty. Creative chefs executing classics or providing canny twists, double-check. I’ve lost count of the swoon-worthy platings that have been shoved under my nose. Consistency? I don’t have the deep-pocketed backing of Michelin to tackle that one.

Now the major question for you dear reader, one I’ll pose to you as a zen koan, “If a Michelin quality dish is served in Utah, and an inspector isn’t there to taste it, does it still exist?”

Yes. Yes it does.

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11 thoughts on “Why are there no Michelin-starred restaurants in Utah?”

  1. Robert James Larsen

    We may not have any Michelin rated restaurants but they give the entire state of Utah a three star rating as a must visit location worldwide. It’s the first time they have ever given this distinction to a location/destination.

  2. Because there is a lot of really mediocre here. I have been trying to find good italian, mexican, chinese food for 5 years. Nothing but mediocre. Smothered in thick sauce or gravy is definitely a thing here.

    1. Italian isn’t really my wheelhouse Lisa, but if you’d like Chinese or Mexican recs, I’d be happy to oblige 🙂

  3. There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Utah because there are no restaurants here that would merit one. The culinary scene in Utah may be “exploding” compared to what it was before, but it’s still 15 years behind many other major metropolitan areas. My theory of the case is that the problem lies in the absence of a highly developed local cuisine for chefs to riff on. I come from Durham NC, which certainly didn’t have many good restaurants until the late 90’s or early aughts, but the first great restaurants in the Triangle Area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) all centered southern ingredients and cooking techniques (Crook’s Corner, Magnolia Grill). Later restaurants created something new, but inflected their dishes with southern flare (Mateo Tapas, for example, is Spanish-Southern fusion). What would chefs riff on here, fry sauce and funeral potatoes? I love my new home state of Utah, but I love it for the mountains, the skiing, the wonderful people, and the incredible natural beauty. Not for the restaurant scene.

    1. I’d respectfully disagree, inasmuch as I’ve had numerous Michelin quality dishes in Utah over the years. Some at restaurants since gone, some at popups, some at restaurants here right now.

      I do get your point on riffing on local cultures. In regards that I’d say the main angle here would be the Mountain West. Places like Hell’s Backbone pretty much create their whole menu locally from on site farmed produce and locally ranched protein. Newer folks like Ramen Ichizu are working on an elk shio ramen I believe, and if what I’ve heaard about their cooking holds consistenyly true, they look like a fantastic new addition. It is of course tough, and it’s also a hard market to innovate in too I’d say.

      At any rate, here’s me raising a glass with you to what the next 15 years brings, I know there are several new concepts in the works, and lots of exceptionally talented toques coming to Utah with plans 🙂

    2. I completely agree. Fast food seems to be the dining du jour of choice and with out a restaurant scene that develops James Beard restaurants and then the food artists that start their own restaurants we will forever be limited by Apollo Burger and every fast food restaurant in America.

    3. I would say that there’s quite a bit more than you give credit for.
      There are definite Mexican influences within Utah, but nothing more unique than states in the Southwest.
      There is a strong Polynesian community in Utah that prepares amazing food, but perhaps hasn’t had the same access to restaurant opportunities as other communities.
      There is also a strong Greek and Mediterranean influence in Utah, and some amazing restaurants that reflect this.
      There’s always the steak and potatoes as well, which is typical for the American west.
      Finally, there’s Native American cuisine, which also has limited access to opportunities for opening restaurant establishments.
      Much of all of this is limited by the traditional LDS cuisine heritage, which is driven more by a lack of dining out due to large families, and focuses on large meals with lots of calories. Nevertheless, there are gourmet versions of funeral potatoes out there, along with other gourmet caserole variances.

      All of this may be driven by a distinct bias for certain foods and culinary traditions when determining Michelin stars.

  4. Having eaten at over a dozen Michelin starred restaurants in Spain, France and the U.S., I can tell you there isn’t a single restaurant in Utah worthy of a star. The lack of flavor, passion, care and service in Utah are noteworthy. Having just returned from Jazz Fest and then my daughter’s graduation in NYC, I can say Utah has a loooooonnnnnngggg way to go. We don’t get it here.

  5. Dined at a Michelin a couple of Michelin restaurants this year and Utah’s best absolutely stands up to at least one of them. And for that comment to say we’re behind 15 years behind….just ignorant. Utah could have had a star years ago with now closed Forage or Fresco, both as good as any Michelin star restaurant I’ve been to. Time for Utah to campaign to Michelin for our new crop of restaurants that are at least Michelin recommended worthy.

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