Star Bright

“Justin [Cogley, pictured] has such a following, here in Carmel and around the world,” says restaurateur David Fink of Aubergine’s now Michelin-starred chef. “When they announced Aubergine, we just burst out in screaming and applause.”

Forgive Chef Justin Cogley and his crew at Aubergine for being a little starstruck. The Carmel restaurant just landed the first-ever Michelin star awarded to the Central Coast.

“I am thrilled as this is something you work your culinary life for,” Cogley says.

The chef’s signature coastal California cuisine has earned him and the restaurant several accolades beyond the newly minted star. He was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef (2013) and was a Best Chef: West semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Awards in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

But Cogley had been on edge ever since receiving an invitation to the awards ceremony ahead of the announcement. “You knew you were going to get something, but had to wait nervously for two weeks to find out what,” he says.

So an award of some kind was not unexpected. Local foodies and food writers talked of Aubergine as a front-runner. The guide’s anonymous inspectors were “particularly impressed by the local flavor and seasonality of the menu” from Cogley and Pastry Chef Yulanda Santos, according to a press statement.

“Most of us have worked together for almost three years,” Santos says. “So to share this moment of bringing the first Michelin star to Carmel with this team and chef, at this moment, is very special.”

The much-anticipated announcement came on June 3 at a ceremony in Huntington Beach. It was the first time the famed Michelin Guide ventured beyond the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles – a decision that was not without controversy.

Visit California coughed up a reported $600,000 to convince Michelin to expand the guide to the entire state in a one-year deal. Statements from the bureau, which is funded through businesses that benefit from tourism, indicate the payment was intended to cover the expenses of Michelin inspectors. Critics point to the obvious conflict of interest – restaurants and hotels sending money through a third party for the opportunity of a Michelin award.

The Michelin Guides to New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and the previous Bay Area-only book do not receive support from state or local tourism groups, at least according to aWashington Post report in 2017. Michelin had printed a guide specific to L.A. in 2008-09, but dropped it during the recession.

A total of 90 restaurants were awarded Michelin stars in the new statewide edition. Seven restaurants earned three stars, 14 received two stars and 69 were awarded one star. Michelin’s stars recognize standouts for food and service. A single star indicates “high-quality cooking, worth a stop,” two stars mean “excellent cooking, worth a detour” and three stars – the guide’s highest honor – celebrate “exceptional cuisine worth a special journey.”

And yes, the guide has its origins from that Michelin – the tire company. The restaurant guide was originally created in 1900 to encourage driving so the company could sell tire replacements. It included information on hotels, gas stations and repair shops.

Dinner at Aubergine, located inside L’Auberge Carmel hotel, features an eight-course chef’s tasting menu (plus an amuse bouche) for $185 with optional wine pairings for an additional $155. Selections change seasonally.

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