There’s always a book.

In this case, it’s a little red one: the Michelin guide, thoroughly dog-eared, sitting on a deeply polished wood-grain shelf next to me as I stab my fork over and over again into the steaming, leathery, shiny exterior of perfect poulet in an iridescent pool of jus. Soft white light streams in through huge windows from all directions, illuminating diner, book, poulet, psychotically beautiful mosaic tiles, brass accents, sparkling glassware. I’m sitting at a bistro in Paris, a casual (casual!) French place that’s listed somewhere in the dog-eared pages behind me, eating lunch. It feels surreal, like dining in another era. And the food is so good.

As a kid, we never visited starred restaurants — I didn’t even really know what A Star was. Dining at such establishments wasn’t part of our family culture. As an adult, even as one who loved cooking and eating, I was aware that they existed, but mostly in the vague way that one is aware of luxury yachts and private jetliners.

It wasn’t until moving to Paris that Stars began to occupy my attention. Every single culinary heavyweight that I encountered had stars. Such status seems not only a marker of excellence, but perhaps a maker of excellence, in the sense that striving for one (training in starred kitchens as an underling, earning stars on behalf of an executive chef) actually made the greats great.

Still, this caliber of dining is one that most folks won’t enjoy on a regular basis, if ever. In Paris, the average customer at a 2-star or 3-star restaurant has a higher net worth than most nation states.

Yet in one view, the customers are almost besides the point — a prestigious source of private funding. The real value of these restaurants to their communities, and to the culinary industry as a whole, is that they serve as breeding grounds for culinary excellence, create demand for highly trained staff, and most importantly, create demand for a caliber of plant and animal stuff that you simply can’t get with pesticides and unscrupulous farming methods. It’s not so much sustainability for its own sake, but sustainability for the sake of a great meal — and that is a type of sustainability that everyone can get behind, no matter where their political allegiances lie.

Image created with generative AI. Prompt: Books standing up on a bookshelf, white wall; Firefly; 22 attempts