The Highway 1 corridor would appear to be a natural Michelin Guide destination. This high-brow culinary guide was originally created to celebrate driving and sell more tires – and what better driving experience does the West Coast have to offer than the curvy road that links the Monterey Peninsula to Southern California via Big Sur? And yet, something hasn’t quite clicked into place. There is only a single restaurant – Aubergine in Carmel – within 60 miles that carries a coveted Michelin star. The restaurant first received its star in 2019, and retained it when the most recent guide was released this fall.
To Chef Justin Cogley of Aubergine, the whole process was mysterious and the guide’s inspectors as elusive and secretive as the Templars. “They are a mystery,” Cogley says. “Very anonymous, and it’s really hard to figure them out. Sometimes you catch a wind, a certain movement. But you never know if there is an inspector among diners. You spend your life cooking for one or two people who might show up one night, or not.”
It was hard to get attention in Carmel, Cogley says. The area does not enjoy a good reputation among the food elite.
But Aubergine isn’t the only restaurant on the Michelin Guide’s radar. If you go to the website and type “Monterey” into what looks like a modern search engine, a number of other local spots will pop up – Montrio Bistro, Paprika Café and The Sardine Factory in Monterey; Casanova, Cultura, La Bicyclette, Akaoni, Dametra Cafe and Seventh & Dolores in Carmel; Plus Pèppoli (Pebble Beach), Lucia (Carmel Valley), Sierra Mar and Big Sur Smokehouse (Big Sur).
They all were decorated with a Michelin Plate after the guide made its big comeback to this part of California (after almost a decade of absence) in 2019. Yafa in Carmel received a Bib Gourmand award – for restaurants that offer a full menu of a starter, main course and dessert, making it possible to order two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for around $40 or less. So what’s the difference between the stars, the plates and the other awards?
“Three stars means drive right now, two stars means worth a trip and one star means visit if you happen to be in the area,” explains Chef Todd Fisher of Seventh & Dolores. Bib Gourmand has been around since 1955 and is awarded to neighborhood restaurants that represent a certain value. “It’s more of a local haunt,” Fisher says.
When the Michelin inspectors “happened to be in the area” for Aubergine, they dined in other local places. Hence the Michelin Plates, explains Fisher. “Maybe a restaurant is not of that caliber yet, maybe something is missing, like service or decor, but [Michelin] wanted to recognize the quality. We knew nothing about them coming and received an email afterward.”
It was a surprise for other local restaurateurs too. “We simply received an email,” say Dia and Rita Kheir, the owners of Yafa. Since 2019, the business has been unbelievably busy, with many diners coming just because of the guide.
To move into the star rank, Cogley says, consistency is key. Aubergine has been perfecting the abalone it serves for a decade, since the restaurant opened – a battle of consistency against complacency. This quintessentially Monterey delicacy is raised locally just for the restaurant. Aubergine serves a fixed menu and each customer gets 10 courses instead of three, increasing the risk that one night something will be imperfect, slightly overcooked or not ideally presented. To make each dish exquisite and be able to repeat the trick over and over again – “that’s why it’s so stressful,” Cogley says, smiling.
Every Michelin star chef has their own journey. For Cogley, there has always been an attraction in fine dining, as well as respect for French chefs and the Michelin guide as an institution. Not that Michelin is only about fine food, Cogley points out. He knows a dumpling place in Hong Kong that carries a star but doesn’t look fancy. “But essentially, they do what we are doing here,” he says. “Years and years of recipes being perfected.”
The inspectors returned to Aubergine recently, and the restaurant was able to retain its star. “Getting a star was a huge change,” Cogley says. “It’s never been that busy. We are super lucky to be busy all the time.”