The little red book: the power of the Michelin Guide

The Michelin Guide to hotels and restaurants divides opinion across the foodservice industry. Tina Nielsen traces its history and asks why it is so influential

There is a scene in Noma, My Perfect Storm, the documentary film about the pioneering Danish restaurant, which sees chef René Redzepi address the kitchen staff. “The Michelin Guide comes out tomorrow,” he says. “Do we need it in our lives? Probably not, but it would be nice to have.”

It is a typically relaxed statement from Redzepi, but many chefs feel considerably stronger about the guide and the stars it dishes out every year.

Gordon Ramsay admitted to crying when Michelin retracted his two stars at the London in New York. In France, Bernard Loiseau committed suicide amid rumours that one of the three stars at his La Côte d’Or restaurant was about to be taken away. It was later reported that Loiseau was despondent over his debt issues, but Michelin still received the blame from some people – testament to the power and influence wielded by the little red book.

If more evidence is needed, consider Singapore-based French chef Bruno Menard – he has a constant reminder of his three stars tattooed on his forearm. He describes clinching them as akin to winning an Oscar in Hollywood. “It is amazing. It sounds like a lifetime achievement, but getting the three stars is probably just the beginning of something new. Your life changes,” he says.

At a time of countless lists, bloggers and user-generated restaurant reviews, he insists the Michelin Guide is still the one that matters. “You have to agree that Michelin is still the main reference. It is what made me dream as a kid and it is the reason I am a chef today,” he says.

Indeed, achieving stars is the primary goal of many young chefs when they set out on a tough career. It is the reward for hard work, skill and commitment.

“If you ask a 16-year-old chef what their ambition is, nobody is going to say ‘I want to get two AA rosettes or six out of 10 in the Good Food Guide’,” says British critic Andy Hayler, who has visited every three-star restaurant in the world.

He calls the Michelin Guide the gold standard. “Having supposedly multiple anonymous visits by people who eat out a lot and who are not taking any money, advertisement or disguised consultancy from restaurants is about the most objective way that you can design a food guide,” he says.

For some, it is less about the glamour. Niklas Ekstedt says that being awarded a star a year after opening his Stockholm restaurant Ekstedt meant a great change. “I think all chefs have a love/hate relationship with Michelin, but it was very important for me,” he says. “When we have holidays or bank holidays, Stockholm is dead as Swedes leave the city to go to their summer houses, and Michelin really helps us to fill those days. People look in the Guide and come to us.”

Others, however, find the stars a burden. Marco Pierre White – at the time the youngest chef ever to be awarded three stars, aged 33 – famously handed back his stars in 1999 and quit cooking altogether. It is fair to say it is a complex relationship.

Improving mobility
The Michelin Guide is the oldest European hotel and restaurant reference guide, dating back to 1900. There might have only been 3,000 cars in all of France at the time, but brothers André and Édouard Michelin recognised driving as a lasting trend and foresaw that motorists would need to find places to refuel, rest and change their tyres. They created the first edition of the Michelin Guide and handed out the 35,000 copies for free.
A charge was introduced in 1920; by that time there were five country editions. Six years later the brothers created the famous star system.

Today the guides cover 18 countries and more than 50 cities around the world. A Singapore guide will follow in 2017. In addition to the star system, there is also the Bib Gourmand, the accolade rewarded to restaurants that provide “good meals at moderate prices”.

Though the focus is mostly on the more glamorous world of the star system, there are plenty of entries in the Michelin guide that don’t have stars but are recommended by inspectors. “The stars are an important part of the guide, but it is also about providing a good cross-section in every category and every style,” says Rebecca Burr, editor of the UK & Ireland guide.

Mystery surrounds the inspectors and their anonymity is fiercely protected. Michelin is cagey about the number of inspectors working for them, but they have in common a professional background and a thorough understanding of the industry. This may come from years working in a restaurant kitchen or the wine business.

They also need to be seriously committed to the job – a typical inspector has between 220 and 250 meals out a year. “The inspectors do have to be passionate about the business, but there is such a huge variety in the guide – whether that is a very simple bistro or pub or a high-end fine dining restaurant – they never get jaded,” says Burr.

New inspectors receive up to six months training, shadowing experienced inspectors in different locations across the world. This is central to the philosophy of the guide. “It has always been a global approach, so we’ll have people from Germany coming to the UK and vice versa,” she says.

Food on the plate
It might be a little known fact, but the Michelin Guide ratings are based solely on what they call ‘the food on the plate’. “We don’t close our eyes to the environment or who serves the food, but any chef operating at that level and serving that kind of food is not going to serve it in a filthy place with staff who can’t be bothered,” says Burr.

The food is measured against five criteria: the quality of the ingredients; the skill in preparing and combining them; the chef’s personality as revealed through the cuisine; value for money; and the consistency of culinary standards.

One of many misconceptions is that stars are awarded to chefs. They are not. They are awarded to the establishments, so chefs don’t take the stars with them when they leave a rated restaurant.

So how do you clinch a coveted star? When the UK and Ireland Guide 2016 was published Burr said that for starters chefs should not be cooking for the inspectors, but instead find their own way: “For those chefs it is about their customers and that is always our philosophy. It is about individual craft.”

She points to Spanish chef David Muñoz whose restaurant DiverXo in Madrid, Spain, was awarded a third star in 2014. “At that level between two and three stars we are looking for much more personality, signature and technically stronger cooking and he is a fine example of that,” she says.

It was big news when the avant garde restaurant in Madrid received a third star in 2014. But Muñoz is symptomatic of the wave of chefs Burr refers to who are following their own path. The food in DiverXo is very different and experimental, the waiting staff are young and the atmosphere relaxed. When diners enter the space they are met with flying pigs on the walls and giant ice cream cones doubling up as wine coolers.

“When we got the first star everybody said we wouldn’t get the second because of the way we do food and service, but I didn’t care,” says Muñoz. “I knew we were making something different and we were doing it our way. That was the most important thing. When we got the second star people still said we couldn’t get a third and when we did everybody went crazy.”

For Grant Achatz, the chef-owner of Alinea in Chicago, US, the fact that Michelin is unafraid to award the stars to more modern and innovative restaurants is key. “I like the fact that they give them to somebody who breaks the traditional mould of what a three-star restaurant should be. That tells me that they are cognizant of what’s going on in the world of gastronomy,” he says. “They are not saying only Ducasse and Ramsay can get three because they have candelabras and white tablecloths. In my mind the fact that DiverXo and Alinea are doing things that are wildly different and still get three stars, legitimises them.”

Respect and controversies
The guide may be revered and reviled in equal measure, but its influence can hardly be contested. Longevity is one reason, but its independence is cited by many as another contributing factor. “As far as the industry is concerned I think they respect the way we work and we are one of – if not the only – organisation that measures them against their peers around the world,” says Burr. “For a chef to have a star means they are being measured against chefs across the world; it puts them into a special league.”

For Diego Guerrero, chef and owner of the starred DSTAgE restaurant in Madrid, it is simple. “Our star gets people to come to my work and we want people to come and see our work. They put you on the map and ensure that the press and the dining public know about you too,” he says. But beyond that he doesn’t take the stars too much to heart. “You don’t work to achieve the stars, you have to work for you and the public.”

Muñoz concurs. “I never expected to get my first, second or third star. Having said that I am very happy to have them and they are very important to me, but the most important thing to me is that we are fully booked,” he says.

But the chatter surrounding the guide is not exclusively positive – criticisms include the accusation that it has not changed with times, reflecting trends and innovation in cooking. Burr disagrees: “We have always been at the forefront of acknowledging any change in the industry. People have said, ‘Michelin has changed, they award stars to such different places now’, but it is not us who have changed, it is the restaurants.”

She cites the presence of Michelin in Copenhagen since 1983 as an example. Another is the stars awarded to pubs, reflecting the trend in elevated gastronomic offering – there are now 15 UK pubs with a star.

Guerrero had previously been awarded two stars in his old restaurant El Club Allard and when he opened DSTAgE eyebrows were raised when he was awarded his first star just five months after opening. He sees this as evidence the guide is attuned to the changing culture of high-end dining. “For me it is a clear sign that Michelin are happy to back entrepreneurship, young people and those who want to tell stories in a different way,” he says. “Michelin knows that the notion of luxury changes and the stars have to evolve too.”

Though Michelin doesn’t have a relationship with the industry, there is more contact than many might think. From time to time inspectors reveal their identity and speak with the chef. “I think it is important to find out what the philosophy is, what they are changing and how they feel things are going,” Burr says. “We want the industry to know that we are approachable and we are interested. We make a guide for our readers, but we are very understanding of what they have to do these days, from overheads and staff costs, and we hope them being in the guide means they will get a little bit of business from us.”

Beyond Europe
The Michelin Guide is still considered a French or European institution, and for good reason. Expansion into the US did not happen until 2005 when the New York City guide launched. The guide, after all, is part of the largest tyre company in the world and any new launches have to fit in with overall business strategy. “We have to look at where we want to promote the tyre business in the world, so it is part of an overall strategy, but there obviously has got to be a culinary scene,” explains Burr.

The relative novelty of the guide in the US is reflected in the perceived influence. “Of course we want to get the three stars because anything less would feel like we have failed, but to be completely honest the impact is not as significant here as it is in Europe,” says Achatz.

“I think Michelin probably means something to Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten that it doesn’t mean to an American chef,” says Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for The New York Times. “Of course there are American-born chefs who have worked in European kitchens and they would have been made aware of what a big deal it is.”

Hong Kong and Macau and Tokyo have followed, but Hayler believes that although the standard of restaurants is not supposed to vary much between different countries, they do. “In Europe there is quite a high degree of cross-checking to get to two or three stars – a national inspector’s assessment needs to be confirmed,” he says. “I am unconvinced that the same rigorous approach is applied across the world.”

He calls the US guides “exceedingly generous” compared to their European counterparts and believes it’s harder to gain three stars in France than in the UK, for example. But he reserves his biggest criticism for the Hong Kong guide, which he says is an “embarrassment”. “The Hong Kong guide is incomprehensible, and in my view it is devaluing the brand,” he says.

But Burr insists the criticism is unfounded. “There is going to be a difference between a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong and a starred restaurant in France. I have seen both and I understand both. The tagline is ‘a star in its category’,” she says. “We have the inspectors and a senior team that spends a lot of time ensuring that consistency in one-, two- and three-starred restaurants is maintained.”

Staying relevant
Michelin has been digital since 2001 and today Twitter users can follow inspectors on their travels around the world, albeit retrospectively. It has little choice in a crowded marketplace that now features several lists such the highly publicised World’s 50 Best Restaurants and individual restaurant blogs as well as user-generated review sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp. The printed guide remains popular and is considered the core product, but to stay relevant the digital side of things is increasingly important.

“Other things have always existed and if anything our reference has become stronger in recent years because there is so much out there and people are sifting through and thinking ‘one is saying this and another is saying something else’,” says Burr. “The Michelin Guide is an easy reference guide – any recommendation has been independently assessed by professional people who know the business and the restaurants around the world. I think that is how we stay relevant.”

Tina Nielsen

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