The Mysteries of the Michelin Guide

When you think of Michelin, do you picture brand-name tires or an annual restaurant guide? Why not both? Many whose professional or personal lives orbit outside of the culinary world aren’t aware that the French tire company also produces the prestigious Michelin Red Guide; after all, selling tires has very little to do with fine dining.

Although they may seem like unrelated fields, the journey Michelin took from tire manufacturer to restaurant authority was a business-driven one. As the story goes, the Michelin Guide began at the turn of the 20th century as a way to get more vehicles on the road, thus wearing down their tires more quickly. In the late 1920s, it began focusing on fine dining. Country- and city-specific guides outside of France were released later, finishing its transformation into a global guru.

Despite being a widely respected publication, Michelin doesn’t escape the ire of opinionated restaurateurs and diners. To understand why the Michelin Guide causes salivating taste buds and simmering tempers in equal measures, it’s important to understand how the recommendations are made.

The Keys to Michelin’s Guide

If you don’t own the published version, Michelin-recognized restaurants can be found on the Michelin Guide website. The sorting system there allows interested users to organize restaurants by a number of filters, including the one-to-three star system for which the guide is so famous:

Menu Less Than €20: This is not a standalone rating or any sort of recognition, but indicates restaurants within the European Union that offer menu options costing no more than €20 ($21.57 as of Feb. 3, 2017).

Bib Gourmand: Named after the company’s mascot, this designation goes to restaurants that offer “good quality, good value” and “simple yet skillful cooking” that costs €28 ($30.20) or less. Restaurants who receive Bibs are not able to receive a Michelin star.

The Michelin Plate: This designation debuted in 2016 and guarantees “fresh ingredients, capably prepared: simply a good meal,” and “good cooking.” There is no menu price standard in this rating.

One Star: These restaurants provide “high-quality cooking” with meals that “are carefully prepared to a consistently high standard.” Michelin says these restaurants are “worth a stop!” While it’s the most attainable star rating, only 1,955 restaurants have received it.

Two Stars: Restaurants deemed worthy of this rating provide “excellent cooking” and are “worth a detour!” Additionally, dishes served at the 342 restaurants with this rating are “expertly crafted” and may be “refined, inspired, and sometimes original.”

Three Stars: The most elusive of Michelin’s accolades, a three-star rating distinguishes restaurants that are “worth a special journey” because they provide “exceptional cuisine” that has been “elevated to an art form.” There are fewer than 100 three-star restaurants in the world.

How Michelin Stars Work

To get a Michelin star, a restaurant must obviously be located in one of the cities that the guide covers. The company is expanding its coverage to more cities abroad, but not every major city has one, and recommendations are still heavily concentrated in Europe. In the United States, only four cities have a guide: Chicago, Washington, New York, and San Francisco. The publication of Michelin guides in Las Vegas and Los Angeles was temporarily suspended in 2010 because of economic reasons and has not resumed.

To decide which restaurants are worthy of a star, Michelin employs anonymous food critics it calls inspectors, although it isn’t known exactly how many inspectors exist or who they are. By preserving their anonymity in an age when food critics’ identities are published online, these inspectors ensure they receive the same experiences as other diners. They make periodic visits to restaurants that are already rated or are being considered for a rating, determining their annual rating based on a handful of criteria.

According to the Michelin Guide Dictionary, the criteria for judgment are: “the quality of the ingredients, the flair and skill in preparing them and combining flavors, the chef’s personality as revealed through the cuisine, value for money, and the consistency of culinary standards.” This means the inspectors take into account only a restaurant’s food, discrediting speculation that aspects like décor or service can impact a star rating. (In fact, service is considered separately and will be noted by a crossed fork and spoon, with a one to five rating.)

When (and Why) Michelin Matters

As with other industry accolades, like the Academy Awards and Nobel Prize, Michelin stars are incredibly important to the professionals who receive them and to their fans – in this case, chefs and (mostly) fine dining enthusiasts. Although the stars are awarded to restaurants rather than to the chefs themselves, a recognized restaurant’s success is often attributed to the chef in charge of it. This gives him or her the unofficial title of “Michelin-starred chef,” which brings pressure, praise, and increased profits.

Researching Michelin stars inevitably brings up various anecdotal evidence about how they affect chefs, sometimes quite negatively. Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay has admitted that losing two Michelin stars at his New York City restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at the London, made him cry. More seriously, the rumor that his restaurant was in danger of losing a Michelin star is widely believed to have contributed to renowned Chef Bernard Loiseau’s death.

In a 2015 Vanity Fair article, Michelin Guide International Director Michael Ellis insisted the stars can’t actually be returned. That hasn’t stopped chefs from doing just that on behalf of their restaurants, even if it amounts to nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Although it doesn’t happen frequently, chefs who’ve returned a Michelin star have done so in the hopes of ridding their restaurants of the added cost, menu restrictions, and unrealistic diner expectations the fame can bring.

Some observers have more recently wondered if the introduction of the Bib Gourmand and newer Michelin Plate ratings, which are meant to provide recommendations outside of the confines of fine dining, have lowered the impact of Michelin’s recognition. While it may no longer be seen as an unimpeachable measure of a restaurant’s value, the Michelin star remains a coveted achievement for many chefs.

Souring on the Stars

Despite debunking some myths on its website, Michelin’s inspectors and their exact methodology remain shrouded in mystery. According to Michelin, “inspectors visit every venue listed every 18 months as a minimum, and its Bib Gourmand and starred venues as many times as necessary.” Theoretically, this means a restaurant could be removed from consideration or put on the list based off of one critic’s opinion formed after a single visit made in the last calendar year.

This leaves the guide open to a fair amount of criticism from disgruntled restaurateurs, diners, and local critics who have difficulty predicting how Michelin will feel about a restaurant each year. In 2004, Pascal Remy, an ex-Michelin inspector, went public with a number of accusations that exacerbated doubts about the guide’s impartiality, standards, and inspections.

The consistency of restaurants being rewarded and retaining stars is among critics’ top concerns. Some say Michelin’s standards have worsened in recent years because new restaurants are being starred in their first year open, rather than having to figuratively pay their dues with several years of waiting. Some also wonder if highly starred restaurants are not revisited as frequently as they should be, since some high-profile restaurants that have fallen out of favor with other critics have not lost any Michelin stars.

Additionally, despite a star recently being given to a street vendor in Singapore, there have long been suggestions that Michelin, as a French company, is inclined to more readily reward French cuisine. Michelin and its representatives have denied this accusation several times, insisting the guide’s professional food critics provide an impartial and expert opinion on the quality of the food served.

A “Good” Guide

Diners, whether young adults with untested palates or the most experienced of foodies, will always have varying standards for what makes a restaurant “good.” Even those who seek out fine dining on recommendation of the Michelin Guide will stumble across a restaurant or two that fall short of their expectations. No lone source, however neutral or well-regarded, can offer an absolute ranking of the best restaurants that every diner will enjoy, but the Michelin Guide is as much for the restaurant industry as it is for the industry’s guests.

Much like the groaning and grumbling that happens every awards season, the Michelin Guide will continue awarding stars to restaurants and people will continue to hotly debate the validity of the winners. The subjectivity of restaurants and restaurant reviews allows critical recommendations like the Michelin Guide to coexist, if not always comfortably, with crowdsourced critiques like Yelp. Ultimately, dining out should be a pleasurable experience; whether that pleasure comes from a $6 sandwich or from a 6-course meal is, and will always be, up to the diner.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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