THE MICHELIN GUIDE
Why are restaurants reaching for the stars? Is the Michelin guide really –as Paul Bocuse once said– “the only guide that matters”? It’s debatable. What is certain though is that it was the first one around.
HOW DID IT ALL START?
Two French brothers, André and Edouard Michelin, were selling tires at a time when fewer than 3000 cars were being driven around France. For marketing reasons, they decided in 1900 to print 35 000 copies of a free travel guide “to improve mobility”. Maps and petrol stations, as well as hotels and restaurants were all featured to encourage people to drive.
After WWI, the brothers decided to charge each book 7 francs (about £5), based on the principal that “man only truly respects what he pays for”.
Once they started listing restaurants by category, this specific section became very popular. They consequently decided to hire a team of anonymous inspectors to develop it further. By 1926 the first star was born and in 1931 the second and third stars arose.
After WWII, the red books as we know them today were published annually. The guide awarded 38 French restaurants in 1950. Italy saw its new guide in 1956 with no stars and Britain was awarded 25 stars in 1974. The United States’ first guide was dedicated to New York City in 2005. Japan got into the Michelin family in 2007 and has the most starred restaurants (but do bear in mind that Tokyo has around 200 000 restaurants compared to 20 000 in New York and 14 000 in Paris).
Michelin Guides have historically listed more restaurants than any other guide, relying on an extensive system of symbols to describe each establishment in as little as two lines. Its efficiency has proven to be quite successful, although the different criteria are still, after over 100 years, mysterious to most.
HOW DO YOU GET A MICHELIN STAR?
Unfortunately there is no magic formula, but there are a few things we do know.
Michelin states that to determine star ratings, a highly selective and well-trained team of secret Michelin “agents” visit each restaurant approximately once every 18 months. A one-star candidate receives four annual visits, and a two-star restaurant receives 10 visits before becoming a three-star. Visits take place anonymously, and Michelin picks up the check. The inspectors write a report on every meal, scoring service, décor and location, and are forced to describe the cuisine in just a few lines.
Ex-Michelin inspector Pascal Rémy did spill the beans in his book published in 2004. He stated that, since they were only 11 inspectors in France back then (as opposed to the 50 or more stated by Michelin), it was only possible to visit each establishment once every 3½ years. By the time he was fired –for publishing his book– only 5 inspectors remained.
Whether Rémy is speaking the truth or not, one thing’s for sure: Michelin inspectors have a lot of work –and eating– to do.
To grab their attention, restaurant owners are advised to get in touch with more “approachable” critics or bloggers. Needless to say, their food and service should also be up to par.
DOES A STAR CHANGE ANYTHING?
It is important to mention that Michelin does not list the “best” restaurants in the world nor the most expensive ones – although gaining a star usually means that restaurants will raise their prices.
Chefs have different opinions on the matter. While having Michelin’s attention is satisfying, it can also be damaging.
Take famous French chef, Bernard Loiseau, who committed suicide in 2003 due to a combination of medical issues and the pressure of maintaining his three stars.
English chef Marco Pierre White returned his stars in 1999. Tired of being criticised by customers with high standards, he announced that Michelin starred restaurant were trying too hard and that the future was in casual dining.