The Michelin Guide
The Michelin Guide
By Marla Horn Lazarus
“Stars are not given to a chef…it’s not like an Oscar—it’s not a physical thing. It’s really an opinion. It’s recognition.” – Michael Ellis, International Director of the Michelin Guides
When going on a trip, I always seem to plan things around food and when there’s an opportunity to visit a Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s the ultimate gourmet adventure. What do a tire company and the prestigious fine dining Michelin Guides have in common? They are one and the same, the Michelin Guides that make or break fine dining establishments around the world is the same that manufactures tires.
It was as simple as traveling that led Ándre and Édouard Michelin to start the guide. In 1900, fewer than 3,000 cars graced the roads of France, and while they started a tire company 11 years earlier, they decided that a ratings guide for hotels and restaurants would entice drivers to travel, wearing out their tires and needing replacements. An idea was born and they published 35,000 copies of the first edition, free of charge. It contained useful information to motorists, such as maps, tire repair and replacement instructions, car mechanics, hotels, restaurants and petrol stations throughout France. According to Michelin, they even went as far as to put up homemade road signs to assist travelers. Four years later, the brothers published a guide in Belgium and the rest is history. The Michelin Guide spread around the world, produced in more than 28 countries, and in November 2005 the first American guide, concentrated in New York City, expanded to Chicago, San Francisco and in 2016, Washington, D.C.
How the Stars Came into Twinkle
In 1926, the guide began to award stars for fine dining establishments with only a single star. Then, in 1931, the hierarchy of zero, one, two, and three stars was introduced. Finally, in 1936, the criteria for the starred rankings were published. When a restaurant is awarded a single Michelin Star, it is a sign that it is among the crème de la crème in the culinary world. Receiving Two Stars and the restaurant is excellent and worth a detour. However, if you are awarded Three Stars, the restaurant is known for exceptional cuisine, a destination restaurant, worth traveling to experience.
Shrouded in Mystery
While recognizing the growing popularity of the dining section in the guide, a team of inspectors began to review restaurants. Careful in maintaining anonymity by not identifying themselves, they always paid for their meals, all have extensive culinary backgrounds, many are former chefs and must pass official Michelin Guide training in France. Unlike many food critics, they do not take notes while eating, and will often visit a restaurant multiple times before reaching a conclusion. Many of the company’s top executives have never met an inspector as they are advised not to disclose their line of work, even to their families.
Recently, the international culinary world lost one of the world’s greatest chefs. Legendary French chef Paul Bocuse was known to have simply said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.” Each October, Michelin announces their newest restaurant selections for the following year’s guide and ignites the public to debate likely winners, similar to Academy Award nominations for films, on which restaurant might lose or gain a star. The acquisition or loss of a star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant, as seen in the movies The Hundred-Foot Journey and Burnt. A chef’s ability to inspire the cuisine with their culinary “personality” as well as treating every night as if it’s the night of a Michelin inspection, will then be a restaurant in the running for a star. Believe it or not, restaurateurs have asked Michelin to revoke a star, because they felt that it created undesirable customer expectations or pressure to spend more on service and décor.
Although Michelin remains somewhat secretive about the criteria and evaluation process to receive stars, Michael Ellis, said, “There are five criteria and the most important is the quality of the ingredients as all great cuisine starts with great products. The second criteria, the chef’s mastery of flavor and cooking technique, is critical to the consistent quality of the experience and a key factor in seeking star recognition. The third criteria, equilibrium and harmony of flavors is important for the plate must be in balance where the seasoning is exactly as it should be. Consistency throughout the meal and over time is the fourth criteria. Lastly, the fifth criteria is value for money.” Additionally, Michael said, “We move inspectors around the world so the objective will guarantee that a starred restaurant will have the same value regardless of whether it is located in Paris, New York or Tokyo.”
In the 2018 guide, a new symbol, L’Assiette Michelin (Michelin Plate) joins the coveted star and Bib Gourmand recognizing restaurants where inspectors have discovered quality food. The stars and Bib Gourmands often garner the most attention, however, marked by the new symbol, endorse restaurants that guarantee a very good standard of a food and wine experience. The Bib Gourmands, announced one week prior to the starred-selections, feature designations that offer great food for good value, often known as personal favorites among the inspectors.
Today, the remarkable foresight of the Michelin brothers has given the company a vocation that is as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1900 – namely, to make driving, tourism and the search for unforgettable experiences available to all. With the culinary industry ever-changing, and moving more toward casual dining, Michael says, “Now, you can go to a pub in London for a Michelin Star dining experience.”
After all, a Michelin Star is one of the greatest honors a restaurant can receive.