A Guide to the Michelin Guide: What’s behind the Stars and Tires 

Photo by “MICHELIN Guide – The best restaurants & hotels” App Store

First things first. Before we dive into this holiest of texts something needs to be addressed.

Yes, this Michelin Guide and the Michelin tire company are one and the same. That marshmallow man of a mascot represents both the most sturdy of tires and the highest tiers of  cuisine.

Yes, it’s a little weird.

Yes, it’ll all make sense if you read on.

Driving Up

Amongst all the acclaimed accolades of the wide world, between Emmys and Grammys, Oscars and Kids’ Choice Awards, Rotten Tomato scores and Yelp reviews, there are plenty of metrics that exist to classify true taste and quality in the arts – to help you discern what is and is not worth your precious time and money. The exceedingly diverse cosmos that comprises dining and cuisine are no different; just as is wont to happen with any area of the arts you cannot help but ask the question: Is there no accounting for taste?

The Brightest of Stars 

A mention in the Michelin Guide and the gift of stars that it bestows or withholds have come to be known as extremely prestigious symbols of mastery and craft in the fine-dining and culinary world. These yearly updated guidebooks are eagerly awaited and are hotly debated and reviewed by consumers and critics alike.

Chefs whose restaurants are awarded these stars are some of the best, most successful, and undeniably talented in the world; Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck, and Gordon Ramsay are only a few of the names forever etched among the holy scriptures of Michelin. The guides are a catalog for titans of taste.

The number of stars a chef and a restaurant receive is widely considered to be an absolute rating of quality, akin to Oscars for actors or Grammys for musicians. Due to this near-fanatic renown, recognition from Michelin can change entire careers, restaurant life cycles, and even global dining trends.

The Long Worn Road 

But how were such high standards and critical acclaim achieved? How did Michelin rise to become this monolith of class and influence?

Well it started when two brothers running a French tyre (the non-american way of spelling “tire”) company during the early 1900’s, were desperate for an uptick in sales. They believed they were smart business men with a product that was top notch. They even created a man made of tyres as a mascot which they had creatively named Michelin Man, but sales remained stagnant. Unfortunately for these two brothers, at the time cars were expensive and roads were not always vehicle friendly, so there was little demand for their tyres, no matter how iconic their mascot.

An Early Edition of the Michelin Guide

In an attempt to get more people on the roads and driving on their tyres, Michelin released its first guide for French motorists. This book was loaded with maps of France, car tool tips, repair manuals, tourist destinations, and high quality restaurants they felt were worth a visit.

Eventually, as the auto industry exploded and the need for both tires and destinations grew, Michelin found just as much success in publishing the guide as it had in providing tyres. In response they expanded their reach into other countries and began to investigate further in search of the best Europe had to offer its Michelin motorists.

Classified Top Secret: Michelin Personnel and Operations 

Soon, every country in Western Europe had its own Michelin Guide and, as the curiosity and hunger of the public deepened, Michelin evolved to match the need. During its long history – in part because of the popularity the restaurant reviews in particular had garnered – the Michelin Guide began to specialize in dining experiences. Eventually the three star system was developed in order to judge every restaurant experience consistently.

As the influence of Michelin began to mount, just as in the case of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the Recording Academy, Michelin required the utmost secrecy in order to judge fairly and with appropriate discretion. These secret agents of cuisine are called Inspectors and their identities are kept secret even from most Michelin executives.

An early advertisement for the Michelin Guide

Michelin has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the identities of its inspectors are completely anonymous. The selection process is rigorous and the training process even more so, taking place over several months; with tests in not only cooking, but in tasting, service, and writing as well. Inspectors are forbidden from sharing their employment or association with Michelin with another soul, and are also (unfortunately) forbidden from speaking with journalists.

Michelin, its Inspectors, and the reports they give are thorough and meticulous, requiring several visits from different individuals, writing several different reports. This is to ensure a complete and comprehensive profile for every single establishment. Annually, at the top secret “Star Meeting”, all the inspectors stationed in all the far reaches of the world come together to discuss new inclusions into the guide and condemn new exclusions from existing copies.

Some Speed Bumps 

The Michelin Guide may be a great global symbol of quality, but it is not without its many critics and controversies. In the recent past, particularly in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s there have been allegations of falling standards within Michelin and among its inspectors. Notably, a former inspector published a book about his experiences traveling and working for the guide for several years, criticizing Michelin’s lack of precision, saying that he found there to be a lesser quality to the guides of late.

There have also been consistent voices claiming that the guide heavily favors French cuisine and French chefs when awarding stars; and admittedly a great majority of starred restaurants could be categorized as primarily French cuisine. The bias towards strict formalities and traditional fine dining services and cuisine is also a notable critique of Michelin, as there appears to be a lack of casual dining establishments found in many of their guides despite good quality service and amazing food.

Michelin Sh-michelin 

Exploring and delving into such an icon as the Michelin Guide can be exhausting and considering everything that goes into such an arduous and hotly contested award only makes you curious and stubbornly hungry. For all the effort, surely there must be something to this, right?

Well, yes of course.

The Michelin Guide is designed and edited by some of the best and brightest in the culinary world; but just as with all art, ultimately it’s up to you and only you to decide what’s good and what’s overrated. Rather than looking to the guide and its stars for some divine declaration of excellence, you should take these ratings and their stars for what they are: restaurant recommendations from a very well established and popular travel guide with a man made of tires on the cover.

But don’t just take our word for it; the Michelin Guide classifications themselves are as follows:

 Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie – “A very good restaurant in its category”

Table excellente, mérite un détour – “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”

Une des meilleures tables vaut le voyage – “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”