The Michelin Guide: Past, present, and future
For more than a century now, the mention of a Michelin star could make the head chef of a restaurant queasy. If the first things you think of when you hear the Michelin name are tires, think again. The Michelin Red Guide is the oldest and most renowned restaurant and hotel guide in the world. However, the guide’s roots actually do come from the tire company— in 1900, André and Édouard Michelin, tire manufacturers, decided to create a guide for French motorists with the intent of getting more cars on the road and more drivers buying their products. The first Michelin guide was published with maps, how-tos for changing a tire, and the best hotels and restaurants accessible on French roads. The guide expanded to include all of Europe and was even specially printed for the Allied Forces during World War II because the maps were considered to be the best and most up-to-date available.
With growing attention for the guide’s restaurant section, the brothers started hiring reviewers, called “inspectors,” to make visits and review food. These inspectors still exist throughout the world, and are required to keep their identities completely secret—even their families are not allowed to know. This strict condition of anonymity is a central principle of the Michelin reviews—professional expertise with the perspective of a normal customer. In addition to getting no special treatment, Michelin prides itself on doing what most other food critics don’t have time for: visiting restaurants new and old, and continually going back to the same places. For the typical restaurant reviewer, meals are always dedicated to the new and popular, with little if any time to revisit restaurants more than once. The Michelin inspector can consider the consistency of a dining experience.
The rating system for the guide is complex. Restaurants are rated for the personality of their cuisine, the value for the cost, their consistency throughout visits, and, of course, the quality of the food. Only a select few of the rated restaurants receive stars. In the Michelin system, one star denotes that the restaurant is very good in its category of cuisine, while two says that the restaurant is excellent and worth a detour. The rare three stars label the cuisine as exceptional and worth a special trip just to eat there. Michelin Stars can make or break a restaurant. The company went through a dark time in the early 2000s when Bernard Loiseau, a French chef, tragically killed himself over the threat of his restaurant losing one of its three stars.
In addition to the star system, the guides have a section called “Bib Gourmands,” the best meals that cost less than $40, and a good place to look if you’re ever in a Michelin-rated city and looking for a night of delicious fine dining.
The Michelin 2014 Red Guide for New York City was light on the drama with only a few upsets. The list of three star restaurants did not change. Mario Batali had reason to celebrate. Babbo, his popular Greenwich Village Italian joint, finally got the star back that it lost in 2009. Batali has clashed with Michelin inspectors more than once. In 2009, his other New York City hot spot, Del Posto, was stripped of one of its two stars. The 4-star New York Times rated restaurant has still not earned it back.
The other big upset buzzing within the culinary community was Gordon Ramsay at the London’s loss of both its two stars. Michelin ultimately attributed the dramatic and embarrassing downgrade to the restaurant’s recent inconsistencies from visit to visit, adding that they don’t “really know what’s going on in the kitchen” at Ramsay. Many are saying this downgrade is a long time coming, and have little sympathy for the popular, snappy chef.
The Michelin Red Guide is one of the few remaining institutions still practicing the art of fine cuisine critiquing. In the Internet age, where bloggers and social media reviews are all too common, the prestige and place of the food critic is dying. However, the respect for Michelin and its expert opinions lives on within the food community, and hopefully Michelin will always have the last word.
Cover photo source.