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.