By Jessica Brill
Contrary to what many may believe, exceptional food doesn’t need to come with a hefty price tag, even when searching for Michelin rated restaurants.
These days, many consumers are stretching their dollars, but despite the challenges, eating well isn’t off the table. The highly coveted Michelin stars focus on excellence in fine dining, often featuring restaurants that seem out of reach for the average consumer.
The Michelin Guide does, however, offer something for everyone.
Beginning in 1995, the Michelin Guide started to identify restaurants offering unusually good food at moderate prices, featuring menu items that cost less than a set amount for three courses, based on local standards. In 1997, this evolved into the Bib Gourmand Awards, debuting in the Michelin Guide for the first time.
While there’s no exact science for ‘Bib’ winners, they have two things in common: delicious food and affordable pricing. Simple cooking and great value for money are the fundamentals, allowing Michelin to identify hidden gems ranging from brunch spots to neighbourhood pubs.
In 2022, this focus on quality and simplicity arrived in Canada, awarding 17 restaurants in Toronto and Vancouver with the Bib Gourmand designation.
CRFN got the chance to chat with Carolyn and Matt Pelechaty, the husband-and-wife team and owners of Chica’s Chicken in Toronto. Relying on Carolyn’s experience in marketing and event planning, and Matt’s culinary background, they specialize in spicy chicken and homemade sides, building a thriving business that was recognized at the 2022 Bib Gourmand Awards.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
CRFN: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Chica’s Chicken?
Carolyn: We are celebrating our fifth anniversary this year! We have always been passionate about opening a place of our own, so when we opened in 2018, we decided to give it a name that was meaningful to us. The restaurant was named after our beloved dog Chica, who passed away a couple of years after the restaurant opened.
Our specialty is Nashville hot chicken but we’ve added our own, unique twist, combining our love of chicken and all things spicy. We do it with heart, our own way. We create everything from scratch, and all of our recipes are developed by Matt including sauces, spice mixtures, and even how the chicken is brined.
How have you continued to offer great food at great value through COVID-19 and beyond?
Carolyn: We are located at the Junction in Toronto, and while our restaurant does offer some seating, we are mainly a takeout operation. We were lucky to be able to continue to be supported by our customers through the pandemic, keeping our clientele, and continuing to serve our community.
That’s one of the great things about Bib Gourmand, though. These days, that kind of recognition is a great thing for Toronto and every city, helping out all these small restaurants that have pulled through after COVID-19 and are still struggling to recover.
Can you describe the experience of winning the Bib Gourmand Award?
Matt: It was incredible and it’s an achievement that we are so proud of. When we heard that Michelin was coming to Toronto, we were just excited for the city to be recognized for its culinary greatness. We never thought we would get to be part of it.
We got the email to attend the Michelin event and we thought it would be a fun and cool opportunity to experience what that world looks like. We had no idea that we were being honoured in the Bib Gourmand category until our name was called – and then we were thrilled! The experience was unbelievable.
What has winning the Bib Gourmand designation meant for you?
Matt: Restaurants like ours, with a focus on fried chicken and an old-school diner vibe, don’t generally earn Michelin stars, and we get that. We are so proud of our food and our team, and we understand where our strengths are, but the Bib Gourmand allows restaurants like ours to be recognized for excellence in our own category.
Carolyn: It’s a top priority for us that our customers experience really high-level hospitality at every visit; we want them to feel like they are being welcomed into our home. Our amazing staff builds these relationships and connects with our customers.
We didn’t know it, but during the judging process, the Michelin inspectors visited unannounced several times. The fact that they got to experience and recognize the excellence that we strive for makes us so proud of our team and restaurant.
Matt: Yes, we had no idea how many times or when they visited the restaurant, but they came enough times to get the full experience. Most of our staff do not come from Michelin-star culinary backgrounds, they’re great people, and they are good at what they do. It’s not just an achievement for our restaurant or for the two of us, it’s the whole team effort that counts. It’s just such an honour for all of us.
How has being a ‘Bib’ winner impacted your business?
Carolyn: It has been so amazing to see the public support. We have built such a sense of community with our customers – in fact, we know a lot of them by name. So many of our customers came in to congratulate us, even bringing us gifts. Our restaurant is in the Junction in Toronto, and when word got around that we had been honoured, the neighbourhood really showed us their love.
It was great timing, too, because we opened up a second location of Chica’s Chicken shortly after we won – that one is in the Annex in Toronto. Even though that restaurant had already been in the works well before we found out about the award, it was great publicity to help launch that new location and generate some much-deserved excitement.
Why do you think the Bib Gourmand designation is important for the restaurant industry?
Matt: Attaining Michelin stars has long been a measure of a certain level of cuisine, and that just wasn’t ever going to be attainable for some types of restaurants. Finding and honouring restaurants offering ‘great food at a great price’ is what makes the Bib Gourmand designation so special. It’s important for restaurants to get attention for their business and for their communities, and recognition for their hard work and excellence, but the process is important for consumers, too.
The average person cannot necessarily spend the amount of money it takes to visit a Michelin-star restaurant, so they may never get that. Bib Gourmand allows most of us to experience a Michelin-level, higher standard of food at a price we can afford, and that’s so exciting!
We’ve gotten such a positive response, hearing “finally, we are able to eat at a Michelin-recommended restaurant,” from so many people visiting us. And as Bib Gourmand expands, more restaurants will be able to claim that title and expand their clientele, too.
Michelin including a category like Bib Gourmand is amazing because it allows restaurants like ours to shine, promoting local cuisine, and affording the average consumer access to Michelin-rated restaurants. Everybody wins.