The mysterious Michelin Star - how are they won and lost?
It’s a century-old food ranking system that makes the world’s best chefs go weak at the knees, but what do we actually know about the famous Michelin Star?Peter Iantorno April 21, 2015
The Michelin Star hasn't always been the symbol of culinary excellence it is today. When the star system was first introduced in 1931, a restaurant was awarded one star if it was "a good place to stop"; two stars would denote that a restaurant was "worth a detour"; and in order to be awarded the highest possible commendation of three Michelin Stars, a restaurant needed to be "worth a special journey".
While the fact that motorised travel was still something of a novelty and to make a special trip simply to try out a restaurant was a big pretty deal, certainly had a bearing on how strict the judgements were, it doesn't make it sound any less ridiculous that the first Michelin Stars were awarded to restaurants that weren't even worthy of taking detour, let alone a special journey!
Nowadays the Michelin Guide holds the ultimate power to bestow and retract its coveted stars - an honour so great that chef Gordon Ramsay, below, once described the feeling of when his New York restaurant was stripped of both of its Michelin stars as "like losing a girlfriend. You want her back." But for an annual that is such an authority on cuisine today, it is perhaps a surprise to learn that the first Michelin Guide, published in 1900 by French tyre manufacturer André Michelin and his brother Édouard, didn't even make much mention of food in it at all, instead containing a selection of useful information for motorists such as maps, instructions for changing a tyre, and listings for hotels and petrol stations.
So how has the Michelin Guide evolved from a basic car-owners' manual to the defining authority on culinary excellence? Well, in today's world of easy and cheap travel, where eating establishments are plentiful and standards extremely competitive, it's fair to say that expectations on restaurants hoping to be awarded a Michelin Star have grown massively.
First off, the criteria has been extended somewhat. According to Michelin, one-star restaurants must offer "cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard"; two-star outlets are required to serve "excellent cuisine, skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality"; and the highest three-star rating is reserved only for restaurants that offer "distinctive dishes, precisely executed, using superlative ingredients". Along with the star rating, the guide also provides a written description of restaurants, with ambiance, specialities, wine selection and comfort all taken into account. Each restaurant that is featured in the Michelin Guide is visited by an anonymous inspector every 18 months, unless it is moving up or down the ranks, in which case it will receive more visits - at least four before being awarded one star and a minimum of 10 before a two-star restaurant can be promoted to three-star.
And the inspectors aren't just any old gluttons in it for a free meal. An elite team of around 120 highly trained full-time inspectors, whose identities are kept a closely guarded secret, take on the responsibility of Michelin's entire international ranking system, with each required to take regular health inspections and bi-annual cholesterol checks - an occupational hazard from dining on the rich offerings at an average of 240 restaurants per year.
As one would imagine for a system that carries so much gravitas, when it comes to actually deciding which restaurants should be awarded stars, which should retain their ranking and which have fallen below the required standards and should be stripped of their stars, the process is rigorous to say the least. It consists of every single inspector, plus the Editor-in-Chief of the Guides and the worldwide director, coming together to compare notes on each restaurant and make a collective decision. Despite its rich history and the massive importance that so many of the world's top chefs give it, the Michelin Guide hasn't been free from criticism. Slow reactions (it's only published once a year), a lack of transparency (they never reveal the exact reasons why restaurants are up- or downrated) and, most of all, the notable absence of many of the world's top culinary destinations (including Dubai) in their rankings are all points of contention.
In the past the guide has also been accused of being biased towards classic French restaurants, rewarding fiddly presentation and stuffy service over what most people really want: good-quality, fresh food served with a smile and at a reasonable price. And while there's no doubt that the guide does still include a lot of fine-dining restaurants, the inclusion of a few more down-to-earth eateries and even an entirely new book for 2015, Eating out in Pubs, which charts the UK's best pub food, has gone some way to reversing the trend.
It may have started out as a simple car-owners' manual, but with more than a century of history to its name and the unique ability to both boost and destroy a restaurant's reputation at will, it's no wonder that the world's top chefs are still desperate to earn those all-important stars.