Since the first edition of the Michelin guide was published, back in 1900, the inspection process has been kept a closely guarded secret. However, over the years a number of clues have emerged which help to shine a light on how restaurants are awarded Michelin stars. I attempt to piece it together below.
How did the guide come about?
Yes, it is the same Michelin that make the tyres. In fact, the purpose of the first guide tied in with their tyre making heritage. The company began making atlases which included certain restaurants on different routes. At that time, one star meant the restaurant was worthy of a stop along the way; two stars meant it was worth a detour and three stars that you ought to make a special journey to visit the restaurant.
Michelin claim that the stars mean the same thing today, only adjusted for a more mobile society. Yet with the proliferation of restaurants in the 114 years after the foundation of the guide, many people think Michelin stars actually possess more value than that – particularly with the degree of prestige the stars hold in today’s society.
The life of a Michelin inspector
Surprisingly to many, there are only around 120 inspectors worldwide. This is despite the guide now operating in 23 different countries. Every inspector is anonymous; if an inspector heard any hint that a restaurant suspected who they were, they would immediately cancel the booking and have a colleague reschedule at a random date in the future. They would then stay away from the region for the next 10 years.
But even if they were rumbled without being aware of it, one inspector told The Independent, it would be unlikely to change much. “[The chef] is not going to be better, and nor is his food, simply because I’m eating at the restaurant. The only thing he could do would be to add some ingredients to my plate, but that’s risky too, since a recipe is made with very precise proportions.”
Due to the small number of Michelin inspectors, each is on the road for three out of every four weeks, staying in a different hotel every night. They eat lunch and dinner every day, sampling around 240 different restaurants every year. Michelin, of course, picks up the inspector’s bill. The perks don’t extend to a plus one, though – their cost would have to be paid independently.
Driving over 18,000 miles every year, dangers on the road are more of a concern to inspectors than the health risks one might perceive to be associated with enjoying such a rich diet. Michelin ensure there are regular health check-ups for inspectors, while they are also entitled to a six-monthly cholesterol check.
How do the inspectors come to their decisions?
The exact scoring systems used by Michelin inspectors remains a very closely guarded secret. Yet we do know some aspects of the process. Inspectors visit premises around once every 18 months, unless it is being considered for gaining or losing a star. In these instances, a one star restaurant will receive four visits before it can gain its second star. A two star location must be inspected on ten occasions before it can claim the ultimate honour of three stars.
After every meal, the inspector writes a report. It was thought that service, decor and location were each considered as part of the process, but the Michelin guide editor, Rebecca Burr, this year told The Telegraph that “It is all about the food. Absolutely.” Burr suggested that to go from one star to two means displaying “that technical strength, signature dishes, refinement, something that sets them apart.” While the journey from two to three stars is about the “ultimate culinary experience”.
The Michelin Guide today
For many, the idea that Michelin award stars based on the food alone is a modern development. The guide has moved away from traditional perceptions that it rewarded stuffy, French-biased restaurants with tablecloths and stiff waiters.
This was represented in the UK guide for 2015, which even made reference to the rise of “hipster hangouts”, such as The Clove Club in Shoreditch, a bar-restaurant which gained its first star this year. The Soho tapas bar, Barrafina, and Indian curry house, Gymkhana, also claimed their first stars. Meanwhile, there were also star awards for three country pubs, including the Star Inn in north Yorkshire, where guests can enjoy a three-course dinner for just over £30.
Ms. Burr said that this type of value is also a consideration for inspectors. “It’s got to be worth it. It’s another myth that all starred restaurants are expensive – some are, but there are some fantastic deals to be had, particularly at lunchtime.”
Despite this movement away from traditional fine dining, the guide still attracts censure for old habits that appear to die hard. There is criticism for the large concentration of stars in London. In the 2015 guide, there was surprise that neither Manchester House nor Simon Rogan’s The French achieved a Michelin star award in Manchester, while Rogan’s Fera restaurant, in London, did gain its first star.
Rogan told the Manchester Evening News that he thought The French was “nailed on to get the star”, while he “didn’t expect to get it for Fera”.
Some critics have voiced disapproval of the relative lack of stars in the UK in general. Britain has one of the lowest concentration of Michelin stars per population. Even the great French chef, Alain Ducasse, was left mystified by the lack of stars. For him, London is “the most important city in the world for restaurants…Michelin should give it more stars; it’s mean. You should interview the editor and ask him why [he doesn’t],” he told The Telegraph.