You might have heard of them in passing, or perhaps you’ve caught them being mentioned at the drop of a hat on any of the dozens food shows. Or even still, you might’ve seen them featured in critics’ write-ups in print form and on the web. But to a good deal of people, the question is still in play - what exactly are the Michelin Stars? To answer that question, this article will take you into the history of the company that made this distinction a highly coveted one in the culinary world - and how some have come to view it in both a positive and a less than positive light in recent times. And along the way there will also be some insight given into how Michelin Stars are earned by restaurants across the globe.
The history of the Michelin Guide
To get a better understanding of the subject, it’s important to go back to the early beginnings of automotive travel. In 1895, owning a car placed you in an elite percentile in society because they were seen as both a luxury item and a menace in some corners. In France, motor vehicles were also slow to catch on but two brothers who owned a rubber company saw promise in the rise of automobiles. As a result, Eduoard and Andre Michelin started Michelin, a manufacturing company for car and bicycle tires.
Their car tires had one distinct advantage - they were air-filled and not glued onto the wheel which made their removal far easier for repairs. In order to attract more customers, Michelin began to sponsor car races and drivers using their tires would be the victors more times than not. The next step they took would be a boon to car drivers for 1900 and beyond.
They created 35,000 copies of a 399-page book locally known as “The Red Guide”, which gave detailed information to those using their tires while on the road through France’s numerous towns and cities. This information was preceded at first by advertising and handling instructions for their tires by the company regarding their tires and was accompanied by their now iconic mascot, Bibendum “The Michelin Man.” The bulk of that info? Places to stay as well as places to grab a meal, with restaurants that were attached to hotels as the focus. The rest of the guide contained maps of the country as well as places where one could get gasoline.
The Michelin Guide wound up being in high demand because of this, and so the company began to add more to it thanks to feedback from employees who would have it handy on the road as well as customers who would write in. Michelin then created a guide for Belgium in 1904, and wound up making more for other countries in Europe and North Africa over the next seven years, with the prominent feature of their first English-language guide being published in 1911. It wound up being not only a useful guide that catered to the elite motor vehicle enthusiasts, it would prove to be profitable as well once the brothers started to charge those willing to subscribe in 1920 for two dollars a pop. The guide maintained its popularity even though both World Wars halted its publication - one exception to this was the creation of a special guide for Allied forces in 1939.
The creation of the Michelin Stars
As the guides became popular, Andre and Eduoard felt that the best way to keep their core audience happy was to go after only the best of the best when it came to dining establishments. They got rid of the advertising and put together a team of inspectors who would journey to these restaurants, maintaining an air of anonymity. This team then began to craft the hierarchy for what would go on to be known as the Michelin Stars in 1926. They didn’t reveal what each accord meant until 10 years later.
This information is culled from the observations of those anonymous reviewers and focuses strictly upon the food served at these restaurants, taking care to note the consistency of the quality of the food and the intricacy used to prepare dishes as just two examples of what goes into the reviewing. Critiques from outside parties don’t factor into the final decisions. Each rating also comes with a two to three sentence description. The entire process culminates in an annual meeting of all of the inspectors where they issue the stars to the respective eateries - or not. Everything is cloaked in secrecy from executives to the identities of the inspectors themselves. The star rating system is as follows, in French with translation:
One Star: “Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie” A very good restaurant in its category.
Two Stars: “Table excellente, mérite un détour” Excellent cooking that’s worth a detour.
Three Stars: “Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage” Exceptional cuisine that’s worth a special trip.
As the star rating began, it was only up to two stars being that this was first issued after World War I and some areas were still feeling the effects. This limitation led to 38 restaurants gaining the two-star distinction in France in 1950, and when the guide was released in the United Kingdom for the first time since the 1930’s in 1974, there were 25 stars issued to restaurants there.
The Michelin Guide made its debut in North America in November 2005 with the primary focus on New York City, reviewing 50 hotels in Manhattan only and 500 restaurants throughout the city’s five boroughs. Two years later, a guide devoted to Tokyo, Japan was published. According to Michelin, at the moment there are 14 editions of its guide that are currently published that feature 23 countries and is available for sale in 90 countries.
The Michelin Stars and their influence
Attaining a Michelin Star has become the main goal of chefs and their respective restaurants for decades. Having just one star awarded means that your restaurant will gain more acclaim and respect that elevates you above the competition. The added element of not knowing exactly who Michelin sends as inspectors does push chefs to up their game; inspectors are required by contract to not reveal their identity nor ask that the cost of the meal be waived because of their status. Another major reason is that these restaurants know that only Michelin would have the resources to repeatedly send inspectors to a restaurant in order to finely ascertain its worthiness in giving it stars. In today’s world, most head over to Yelp or Tripadvisor through the Internet on their desktops or smartphones to gauge places based on an aggregate scoring system compiled through customer’s personal experiences. While it is highly effective and easy to access, it doesn’t always guarantee that visiting an establishment will get that person the same results. With Michelin Stars, it is a more definitive and longer-lasting honor.
Michelin itself has adapted to the times. They’ve had success with the Bib Gourmand, a guide slated for those looking for eateries that offer notably exceptional food at moderate prices. This begun in 1955 as a way to attract more of the working and middle class clientele. In addition, the company has also acquired the European equivalent to the Open Table online restaurant booking service. This was done to aid those interested in eateries with Michelin Stars to check out their descriptions at their website and if they desire, to book a reservation. At present, the company also has the Michelin Travel mobile application which also taps into the wealth of restaurant information it has.
As a result, there is an extremely selective group of restaurants who have this honor. For example, in a four year span, there were just 77 restaurants in New York City that had this distinction. In San Francisco, which has seen its culinary scene skyrocket, there were 54 restaurants getting this honor. The company has also seen fit to begin to cover Washington D.C.’s food scene as well, bestowing 12 stars to restaurants in the city. One notable example of how meticulous the criteria is adhered to in giving stars out lies in a Michelin Star being given to a pair of street vendors from Singapore in 2016. This was done because the inspector felt that they offered up food that was far and beyond what someone would potentially find from others in the city.
Controversy and criticism
As much as the Michelin Stars have been lauded within the culinary world, that recognition doesn’t come without any disdain and pointed criticism leveled towards it. One aspect of this lies in a certain dislike that has been formed on the basis that the Michelin Guide originated in France, and that whenever the French are concerned in matters of food and attitudes others perceive a concentrated air of snobbishness on their part. There’s also been a number of accusations that inspectors with the Michelin Guide have shown more deference to those eateries with French-influenced cuisine.
Those accusations of favourtism picked up steam with the publication of a book by Pascal Rémy in 2004 entitled “The Inspector Sits At The Table”. In the book, Rémy pulled back the curtain and detailed claims on how the company exercised strict control when it came to certain chefs and their restaurants in France, deeming them untouchable if they achieved the coveted three-star rating. He also went on to write about how Michelin’s executives seemed more concerned with profit than upholding the true sense of the guide and its rating systems. This seemed to be echoed once the Michelin Stars made their way to the States a year later, with the New York Times making a comparison of restaurant ratings between the Michelin Guide and Zagat’s and seeing certain positive accolades by the former going more towards those places that had French cuisine or elements of on their menus.
Losing a star is for some, a serious blow to their reputation and a mark of shame. The famous gourmet chef Gordon Ramsay actually admitted that he wept over the retraction of two Michelin stars from his New York restaurant in a 2014 interview. To this day, he doesn’t offer anymore comments about it. In a more tragic example, the highly regarded French chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life in 2003. While there were many factors behind the loss - his struggles with mounting debt as well as depression - others close to him also noted that he agonized over the potential loss of his Michelin three-star status.
Chefs have also petitioned Michelin to remove star ratings from their restaurants, primarily because they deem it as fuel for unreasonable customer expectations and a hindrance to their own creativity in the kitchen. The international director of the Michelin Guide, Michael Ellis has gone on record in a 2015 interview with Vanity Fair as saying “You can agree with it or you cannot, but you can’t give it back. That’s not an issue.” However, there have been three recorded instances where chefs have returned their stars within the past seven years.
The last word on the Michelin Stars
Through it all, Michelin is fully cognizant of these issues. As mentioned before, they’ve taken strides in bolstering their digital presence. And part of that is the creation of a social media account that features their famous inspectors. Well, not fully - there’s no identities revealed but it does give you a closer look at what they and Michelin do. When it comes to the review process that leads to the awarding of stars, company representatives have said that they are honing in more on the qualities behind the food that will justify what they feel the star system is - a way to evoke a true harmonious experience within the meal that’s presented. The Michelin Stars are still a preeminent honor within the culinary community, and are sure to remain so for quite some time.
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