How (not) To Earn Three Michelin Stars

Michael Nagrant / 02.06.19

I attended the University of Michigan around the same time as Tom Brady. I’ve watched every single one of Brady’s Super Bowl performances. But I cannot become Tom Brady. Even if I were genetically gifted like TB12, committed to a Torquemada-worthy Pilates routine and drank ten gallons of water daily, minor study and brushes with greatness are not enough to be superlative like Brady and the New England Patriots.

There are savants and self-taught geniuses, people who don’t know the rules, so they find a way to perform at a high level or create something incredible that never was, but these feats are rarer than a great Super Bowl half-time show. If you want to be the G.O.A.T, and you are not Stephanie Izard, you really must sell everything to the devil, including, as evidenced by Brady’s coach, Bill Belichick, your ability to smile.

For restaurants, the Super Bowl win-equivalent is getting awarded three Michelin stars. Achieving three stars seems like a straight-forward formula:

  • Spend millions to repurpose a single-family house or a non-traditional structure. You’re really cooking if you spend 10% of your budget on custom dining chairs. The foyer of your restaurant must be an art installation. Alternatively, you need a bucolic courtyard that would enrapture Emily Dickinson. Bonus points if you create an art installation in a courtyard.
  • It really helps if your kitchen is exposed, zoo-penguin style, behind big plates of glass so that people can see the chefs in their pristine whites tweezing like surgeons with the silence of a Scientologist giving birth
  • The bathrooms must have hand soap that smells like a lemon grove and a basil patch, and cotton hand towels, or at least really thick super Quilted Northern-like c-fold disposable napkins.
  • You must lock people in to a really expensive multi-course menu that changes daily, or minimally, with the seasons. You will make dietary substitutions for those with severe allergies, but you will leave the pork in for the vegetarians who request this.
  • The courses in these meals will fall into a few categories: studies in temperature opposites, investigations in textural contrasts, deconstructions of childhood nostalgia, and plates that employ all three techniques.
  • There will be at least one dish where a sauce is painted with an actual paint brush, or in a pinch, the back of a spoon. Also, a quenelle, which is basically a football shape of foam or ice cream, formed with the hollows of two opposing spoons, will make an appearance.
  • The meals will start and end with things that sound like French theme park rides, amuse-bouche and mignardises.
  • Like a nineteen-eighties metal concert, something you eat will likely blow up, be set ablaze, or at least, sizzle.
  • Some food will be served on plates. Some will be served on the mini-architectural equivalent of a sex swing.
  • These bites will be paired with wines that cost almost as much as the food. The wines aren’t nearly as expensive as the pairing price suggests, but they are rare. You will not be able to find them at retail because the winemaker behind most of the bottles lives off the grid in Costa Rica where his heirloom virgin goats stomp enough grapes to produce ten cases of wine a year.
  • Your ratio of staff to guests will be at least 1 to 1, and maybe 2 to 1, depending on how much people want to “stage” with you for free.  The service staff will have PHDs in conversation and depending on your needs they will be able to speak fluently about mathematical cardinality or Cardi B, depending on your desires.

This rubric will only get you so far. The restaurant must also be your home. Like literally. You will sleep there some nights. Self-sacrifice, renouncing family and friends and single-minded purpose is also generally required. You will risk divorce, alienation from all who love you. You may lose your kids. You will likely sleep with someone on staff and eventually make that into a long-term relationship because you’re both too tired and broken to go anywhere else.  You may even kill yourself if one of those Michelin stars is ever revoked. 

You will have to be mentored by someone who has already achieved three stars. And by mentored, I mean you will accept exploitation as your best friend and be made to believe perfection is only the starting point. It would be better yet if, as a young cook, you worked at two Michelin three-star restaurants, and rejected one of your mentors because they didn’t fit with your philosophy. You will also reject the second mentor in the end, too, at some point realizing, you now have your own voice and that the culinary world has passed your teacher by. After all, everyone wants to eat directly off the floor now, not on latex balloon-ware emblazoned with Murakami flowers.

This is what it takes. This is why Yugen, a new high-end Japanese restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop, will not get three stars, or maybe even one.

The Yugen team tries. But they’re like me watching Tom Brady. It feels like the staff has binge-watched “Mind of a Chef” on Netflix and now thinks it knows what to do. It does not. It struggles to pour water correctly. Our table of four orders two glasses of sparkling and two glasses of still. The staff pours three glasses of sparkling and leaves one glass empty. Eventually we tell them of this mistake, and the staff wonders if they should remove all of the glasses and start again. They confer, whispering in each other’s ears like Secret Service agents. Then they freeze like huckster magician David Blaine when he lived in that block of ice for a week and almost went psychotic. Eventually they remove one glass and return and pour two new glasses of still water. This mini-circus takes minutes.

Before the water fiasco, just sitting down at Yugen, especially if you have dined here before when it was Grace, is jarring. Which is to say, a lot of the dining room is the same, but some things have changed, most notably, the one complaint about Grace, table cloths that appeared wrinkled, have been banished in favor of new chocolate-colored tables.

Being here feels like visiting your childhood home on a lark, knocking on the door, explaining to the stranger who lives there now, that you grew up here, and wonder if you could peek inside? It’s better that you never do this, because, though you imagine reliving the joy of blowing out the candles of your Funfetti birthday cake from your fifth birthday amidst rickety pine furniture and plaid wallpaper, what really happens is the new owner is some Jeff Goldblum-character wearing a scarf has who has turned the kitchen in to a modern-greige-painted gallery adorned with Rorschach-like inkblot art work. You will realize you can’t go home again and that death is imminent.  A Michelin three-star restaurant is always a unique voice, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, not a diluted reminder of what once was.

In great restaurants servers don’t miss a thing. At Yugen the staff stands stiffly, peering past you with empty eyes, like the military sentries at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Reanimation occurs only at the appearance of a food runner, or the need to deliver the next drink. Maybe the servers are just numb because they have to listen to Muzak-style versions of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” and swelling violin-suites of Adele tunes sans vocals, every single night.

The food too is generally bloodless. Canapes included velvet-textured tamago, but raw centered takoyaki.  The soup dumpling is silky and reminds me of a similar wrapper I had with soup dumplings from Benu in San Francisco. But, the dipping sauce at Yugen is oily, missing the classic acidic brightening of black vinegar.

Apologies to Bob Dylan, but the next few courses are best described as blob on blob. A tempura-swaddled oyster sogs in a creamy mound surrounded by the parched autumnal floss of fried seaweed. The whole thing looks like the funeral of SpongeBob SquarePants, his spongy carcass surrounded by kelp friends who cried so many tears, they’d dried out.

Another course, “crab rice”, has a miniscule quarter-sized finger of king crab merus meat sidled up to a gelatinous orange raft of oversalted yolk swimming in a brackish moat of sea urchin butter. Puffed furikake grains which look like fried meal worm tangles wash ashore.

Bread service includes a tiny baguette and a braided mini-challah-looking thing dusted in white powder. At these prices, the white substance should be premium blow, but it is mouth-parching flour. Accompanying butter is topped with fried bonito flakes. Frying bonito robs it of its delicate smokiness. The bitter, brittle flakes are basically a nuisance in the way of me getting to the butter.

Uni redemption occurs in a chawanmushi. This dish is Blobby Kennedy too, but that is what it’s supposed to be. The jiggly egg custard is perfumed by a lobe of buttery sea urchin, the funk of foie, and the sweet lilt of Asian pear. This was the only perfect dish of the entire meal. While it was superb, my printed menu had a “typo” where the word “uni” was dropped and the description was listed as “Santa Barbara Hudson Valley Foie Gras”.

This criticism may make me look like an unfair asshat, but if you don’t pay attention to detail, the A5 Miyazaki shabu shabu is then overcooked, barely pink, and oozes a glossy pearlescent puss of fat cap. 

Tendrils of charcoal-smoke kissed octopus are tender, but they’re tossed with weedy kale, and squid ink chips which remind me of a January health kick where I decided to give up potato chips in favor of the chewy dust known as Terra root veg chips.

A Slagel Farms beef cheek curry features a nugget of gristle and a skinny wand of puff pastry so dry, at first I think it is fried tofu skin.

Grapefruit sorbet with a chervil dusting is bracing, an essential palate cleanser.

The cheesecake features a roof of bruleed, slivered apple. The bruleeing torch curdles the egg yolk of the custard below, leaving it grainy like cottage cheese. I know food runners at The French Laundry and Alinea examine every dish that comes back to the kitchen. If something is uneaten, it’s not uncommon for the chef to be notified, and a server to inquire of the table whether something is amiss. At this point, I leave three quarters of the dessert untouched and mention the curdling to my friends. The servers whisk the dish away quietly.

A mignardise of canele that follows would be welcome were the outside not The Rock’s abs-hard outside, and goopy inside.

The beverage service at Yugen overseen by director Olivia Noren is three star. The nutty oxidation of a twelve-year-old El Maestro Sierra Amontillado sherry adds a sturdy foundation to the chawanmushi.  A 1994 Caves São João Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Quinta do Poço do Lobo features a heady mélange of charcoal and blackberry.

One of my friends did not get the wine pairing, but asked Noren to recommend a port to accompany dessert. Noren came back instead with a Venido de los Vientas Alcyone, a brandy fortified wine made from tannat grapes and infused with roots and herbs, Barolo-chinato-style. I legitimately have no idea what I just typed in that last sentence, but what I do know is that this pour featured raspberry, chocolate, vanilla and honey notes and was one the most intoxicating dessert wines I’ve slurped down. My friend felt the same way and passed it around the table. When Noren noticed we were filching swigs, she brought a gratis round for the table.

Yugen is an above average restaurant. Chef Mari Katsumura is talented. I still remember an extraordinary iceberg wedge salad she made at Entente years ago. If all the dishes at Yugen were as fully realized and executed like that salad, Yugen would be one of Chicago’s best restaurants. Even if it’s above average, Yugen charges peerless prices. My wife and I spent $766.31 on our meal (we shared the wine pairing and got a few supplemental drinks). Yugen is one of the top ten most expensive meals I’ve ever paid for, and it didn’t fall in to the top fifty of meals I’ve ever eaten.  After reviewing the receipt a few minutes ago, and because I believe in opportunity cost, I Googled the face value of tickets to the Super Bowl. Nosebleeds clocked in at $950.  For less than an extra $200, I could have watched Tom Brady make history instead.

Yugen is located at 652 W. Randolph in Chicago.

Editors note: When this article was originally published, I referred to the takoyaki as okonomiyaki. This has been corrected.