The Michelin Guide

October 13, 2013

The Michelin Guide is a veritable French institution. Each March, when it is published, it sparks a media frenzy similar to the Oscars. In the days leading up to the announcement speculation is rife, and TV and newspapers discuss which restaurants might lose, and which might gain a Michelin star. The acquisition or loss of a star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant. Chefs spend their careers trying to get and then maintain them. Paul Bocuse, one of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s, said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.” The term Michelin Guide refers to the Michelin Red Guide, the oldest and best-known European hotel and restaurant reference guide. The Michelin guide is published in 14 editions covering 23 countries and sold in nearly 90 countries. There are hundreds of thousands of restaurants all over the world, but just 106 of them earned three stars in 2012.

When the tyre manufacturers André Michelin and his brother Édouard first produced it in 1900 there were fewer than 3,000 cars in France, and what they wanted to do was to boost the demand for cars, and get people driving more and thus wearing out their tyres. Originally it was not just about food. It contained useful information for motorists, including maps, instructions for repairing and changing tyres, and lists of car mechanics, hotels and petrol stations. The brothers had nearly 35,000 copies printed and it was given away free of charge. During WWI publication of the guide was suspended. After the armistice, revised editions of the guide continued to be given away until 1920. But when André Michelin noticed copies of the guide being used to prop up a workbench, he decided that enough was enough. We only respect what we pay for so they began to charge. It was at this time that the restaurant side of the guide came to the fore. The brothers recruited a team of inspectors to visit and review restaurants, always travelling incognito. In 1926 the guide first awarded stars for fine dining. Initially there was a single star for restaurants; in 1931 the hierarchy of one, two and three stars was introduced. In 1936 the criteria for the star system was published:

one star: “A very good restaurant in its category” (“Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”)

two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (“Table excellente, mérite un détour”)

three stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (“Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”).

During WWII publication was again suspended. However the 1939 guide was specially reprinted for the Allied Forces which invaded France in 1944; it was thought to have the best and most up-to-date maps available. And once the war finished, just one week after V E Day, it came out again. Due to the shortages that persisted after the war, Michelin decided to impose an upper limit of two stars.

At the heart of the process are the visits. Restaurants can solicit an inspection. There are also from the readers of the guide. But some establishments will resort to orchestrating campaigns to promote themselves. Derek Bulmer, a former editor of the British edition, cites a restaurant which got people to sign postcards that already had ecstatic reviews written on them. Needless to say it didn’t get a star. Bulmer explains what the inspectors are looking for:

You can’t get a star without quality products that are fresh, seasonal and local. These must be prepared with a high degree of technical skill as part of a well-balanced menu. “The starters have to be as good as the mains, the fish dishes cooked as well as the meat dishes and so on.”

Most places will be seen within 12 months of their request, but they aren’t told when it will be or who will be coming. They typically make between three and six visits, and you have to excel every time. They sample venues at different times of the day using different reviewers each time. They have been known to go as many as ten times. The restaurants will not be told they have been awarded a star until the guide comes out in March. However, when a restaurant gets two or three stars, or if they are going to lose a star, they will be informed beforehand.

These Michelin inspectors always go incognito and their meals and expenses are paid for by the guide, never by a restaurant being reviewed. Michelin takes great pains to maintain the anonymity of its inspectors. According to an article in The New Yorker, many of the company’s top executives have never met an inspector. The Guide recommends that they keep their line of work secret, even from their parents, who might be tempted to boast about it. Obviously the inspectors cannot talk to the press. One man who ignored this prohibition was Pascal Rémy, a veteran Michelin inspector based in France. His exposé of the world of restaurant inspection, L’Inspecteur se Met à Table led to his dismissal in 2004. He brought a court case for unfair dismissal, which was unsuccessful. We may have an image of a glamorous life of a Michelin inspector, but Remy paints a picture of solitude, tedium and drudgery as they drive all over France dining alone every night. He felt that he was underpaid considering the strict deadlines for getting in his reports he had to meet. He also attacked the guide for becoming lax in its standards. In particular he stated there were simply not enough inspectors to do the job adequately. Rémy also accused the guide of being biased. They would give an easier time to such famous and influential chefs as Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, who he described as “untouchable.”

Remy’s criticisms are not the only ones you hear about. There is also said to be a systematic bias French cuisine and dining standards. The case of Michelin and Japan is particularly interesting. In 2009 Tokyo overtook Paris at the city with most three-star establishments, and in 2012 Japan was also the leading three-star nation. The rise of Japan sparked criticism that there were commercial reasons behind the stars; Michelin wanted to gain brand awareness with Japanese customers so that they could market themselves in Japan. Curiously some chefs were not wild about receiving a star, feeling that their restaurants would become too popular and they would end up lowering their quality.

Despite the criticisms there is no doubt that the Michelin Guide retains a lot of prestige. It is a fascinating world, but it is also somewhat alien to me. I have never knowingly eaten in an eatery with Michelin stars. I don’t think my local kebab place will be applying anytime soon.

QI: A selection #13

October 13, 2013

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

The study of flags is called vexillology. The Latin word for flag is vexillum – a vexillarius came to mean a standard-bearer.

Woodrow Wilson had his golf balls painted black so he could still play when it snowed.

Napoleon’s most humiliating defeat came at the hands of rabbits. In 1807, he was in high spirits having signed the Peace of Tilsit, a landmark treaty between France, Russia and Prussia. To celebrate, he suggested that the imperial court should enjoy an afternoon’s rabbit shooting. The party arrived, the shoot commenced, and the gamekeepers released the quarry. But the rabbits were tame, not wild, and thought they were about to be fed rather than killed. Rather than fleeing for their life, they mistook Napoleon for the keeper bringing them food. Napoleon was left with no other option but to run, beating the starving animals off with his bare hands. According to contemporary accounts of the fiasco, the emperor of France sped off in his coach, comprehensively beaten and covered in shame.

The Nazis made a point of looking after their rabbits really well, in order to demotivate their prisoners. They kept angora rabbits in a programme which provided warm fur to line the jackets of Luftwaffe pilots. The rabbits lived a life of luxury in the same complexes as concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau – both as a showpiece to visiting dignitaries, and as a constant reminder to prisoners of how little their lives were valued. In Buchenwald, where tens of thousands of human beings starved to death while living in terrible cramped conditions, rabbits enjoyed scientifically prepared meals and lived in their own luxurious hutches.

An astrologer once tried to sue Nasa for “upsetting the balance of the universe”. The Nasa Deep Impact probe impacted with comet Tempel 1 in 2005, creating a crater. As a result, a Russian astrologer filed a lawsuit claiming that Nasa’s landing had ruined the natural balance of forces in the universe and deformed her predictions.

The first mobile phone call took place on April 3 1973, when Motorola’s Martin Cooper called up their rival company to let them know he’d got there first. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first SMS (Short Message Service), or text message, was sent – it said “Merry Christmas”). The first mobiles had to be charged for 10 hours to give 30 minutes of battery life. A survey in 2007 found that 4.5 million mobiles are lost or damaged each year – 885,000 of them flushed down lavatories. Because gold is used as an efficient (i.e. non-tarnishable) electrical contact, a ton of mobile phones contains more gold than a ton of ore from a gold mine.

Many important things have happened in pubs down the years. Sir Thomas More was tried in a pub in Staines in 1535. Karl Marx drafted the Communist Manifesto and held lectures in a room above the Red Lion on Great Windmill Street, London. The George and Dragon in Yarm was the site of the 1820 meeting at which the decision was made to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Britain’s first railway. The Eagle in Cambridge was where Francis Crick stood up and announced that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” having finally cracked the structure of DNA in 1953. And in 2001, QI was founded over several pints of Hook Norton bitter in the Falkland Arms, Great Tew, Oxon.

The Hungarian word “goulash” actually means “cowboy”: the traditional dish is gulyásleves or “cowboy’s soup”. The Hungarian word for the stew that everybody outside Hungary refers to as goulash is pörkölt or paprikás.

Before Italy’s unification in 1861, Italian was primarily a written language based, due to authors like Aretino and Dante, on Tuscany’s dialect. Only after unification was it the national spoken language. It was not until the advent of broadcasting that standard Italian was heard in almost every home. To this day, in parts of Italy local dialect is spoken in preference to standard Italian (the famous Neapolitan songs ’O Sole Mio and Turna a Surriento are written in dialect).

Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) wrote 42 books, including works on the history of Poland, a translation of Homer’s “Iliad” into modern Italian and a five-volume science-fiction novel which predicted the motor car, the aeroplane, television and more. But his masterpiece is his 12-volume memoir, The Story of My Life. Running to 3,600 pages, the book is written in French, because Casanova thought it more sophisticated than his native Italian. Not published in full until 1960, it records each significant moment in Casanova’s life up until the summer of 1774 (when he was 49); at which point, the narrative stops in mid-sentence. The memoir was written when Casanova was in his sixties: a washed-up, impotent, pox-riddled librarian in an obscure Bohemian castle. Bored out of his mind, he began to write as “the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief”.

Part of the M6 toll road is built from copies of pulped Mills and Boon novels. 2.5 million books were shredded into a paste and then added to a mixture of asphalt and Tarmac to prevent it cracking. The British Library’s collection of Mills & Boon novels was once stored in “The Arched Room” at the British Museum, but when the library moved to its new site they were replaced with clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing that once formed part of the library of King Ashurbanipal, a sixth-century King of Assyria.

In German, to have a hangover is einen kater haben, “to have a tom-cat” or katzenjammer, meaning “the wailing of cats”. To Norwegians, it’s jeg har tommermen, “I have carpenters” (in my head, presumably) and for the French it’s avoir la gueule de bois, “to have a wooden throat”. The Italians, who don’t like getting drunk, opt for the bland postumi di sbornia, “the effects after drinking” The idea of drinking again the next morning, called in full “a hair of the dog that bit you” (a reference to a supposed remedy for rabid dog bite), really just postpones the hangover.

The word “bankruptcy” comes from the Italian banca rotta which literally means “broken bench”, although there is little evidence that the wooden moneylenders’ benches were ever actually broken to graphically display their unfitness for business. Strictly speaking, under UK law only individuals can be declared bankrupt. Businesses become insolvent and go into administration. Today you are usually discharged from your bankruptcy after a year but it will cost a minimum of £525 to go bankrupt. Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney and Oscar Wilde all went bankrupt.

In 1979, a Danish comedian, Jacob Haugaard, started a party called the “Union of Consciously Work-Shy Elements”, promising good weather, the wind at your back on all cycle paths and better furniture in Ikea. The joke paled when he won a seat in the Folketing, Denmark’s parliament. In his four years in office he managed to issue Nutella in army rations, give out bread for ducks in parks and build a bathroom in a park in Århus, where he’d started the party.

Perhaps the most famous 300 of all were the Spartan soldiers under Leonidas, who held Xerxes’s 100,000-strong Persian army for three days at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, delaying their invasion of Greece. In fact, there were only 298. One of the men was sent off to deliver a message, and the other had to sit out the fight because he had an eye infection. He did manage to redeem himself later on by dying in another battle, but the messenger committed suicide from the shame of not fighting.