What is a Michelin Star? Anyone who pays any attention to the happenings in the culinary world will have heard this term. However, not many people, myself included, have a firm understanding of what a Michelin Star is. Today’s episode is here to fix that. We are going to do a deep dive into the fascinating history behind the Michelin Guide and Michelin Stars.
Tires and Stars: A Brilliant Idea is Born
I watch a lot of food shows where they have discussed Michelin stars at length. I always thought it was weird that they shared a name with the tire company. That led me to believe that Michelin stars were completely unrelated to the Michelin tire company. However, that is not accurate at all. The same Michelin company we all know and love for producing Michelin tires, had a brilliant idea once upon a time for the Michelin guide.
In the early 1900s, there weren’t a lot of cars on the road in France. In fact, there were fewer than 3,000 cars. At that time a car was very much considered a luxury. It was a solution to a problem that many people didn’t need solved. They were content to stay around their town or village and didn’t feel the need to travel.
The Michelin brothers, Edouard and Andre, had an idea. If they could increase demand for cars, then they could in turn increase demand for tires and their business would boom. The Michelin Guide was born.
What is a Michelin Star? Understanding the Michelin Guide
The Michelin Guide was a booklet put together by the Michelin brothers. The goal was to hype hotels and restaurants throughout France. By ranking these businesses, they became a must experience travel destination. The plan was a MAJOR success. They distributed 35,000 copies of this initial FREE guide. Four years later in 1904, the brothers launched a similar guide in Belgium. Over the next few years the brothers got busy and released guides for Algeria and Tunisia, the Alps and the Rhine (consisting of northern Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria and the Netherlands), Germany, Spain and Portugal, Ireland and the British Isles, and the Countries of the sun which consisted of Northern Africa, Southern Italy and Corsica. In 1909 an English version of the French guide was produced.
Michelin Contributes to the War Effort
During WWI they Michelin stopped printing the guide. When the war concluded the brothers began printing their guide and distributing for free. One day, Andre Michelin visited a tire merchant. He noticed a copy of the guide was being used to prop up a work bench. The brothers felt that consumers would only respect what they paid for and decided to begin charging for the guide. They charged 750 francs, which was roughly $2.15 in 1922. That is the equivalent of roughly $30 today.
Have you ever downloaded an app for free and then were inundated with ads? Sometimes these ads are so pervasive the app is almost unusable. Often these apps will allow you to use the app ad free if you pay something. When the Michelin brothers began charging for their guide they made some notable enhancements. They grouped restaurants by category, they added hotels, and they removed ads! I thought that was interesting. If you wanted to go ad free back in the 20s, all you had to do was pay for the guide.
A Star is Born
In 1926 the brothers made another enhancement to the guide. They decided they would rank restaurants based on a star system. The original system they unveiled has gone through some minor tweaks over the years, but it has largely remained the same.
The rankings are as follows:
- 1 star: Means it is a very good restaurant in its category
- 2 stars: Means excellent cooking and well worth the detour
- 3 stars: Means exceptional cuisine and well worth a special journey
In 1931, the cover of the guide was changed from a blue color to a red color. It has remained the same ever since.
During WWII the brothers again suspended publication of the guide. In 1944 the allied forces requested that they reprint the 1939 guide to France. It was specially reprinted for military use because its maps were considered the best and most up to date. Publication of the guide resumed on May 16, 1945.
In these early post war years, there were major food shortages brought about from the war. Michelin capped the star system at 2 stars for this reason.
In 1974 the first guide to Britain was published since 1931. 21 Stars were awarded in that version.
In 2005 Michelin published their first American guide. The guide covered 500 restaurants in New York and 50 hotels in Manhattan.
Who are the Inspectors?
So now that we have talked about what is a Michelin star, we need to talk about the method behind awarding them. Michelin sends out a reviewer to various restaurants. The reviewer is anonymous. Furthermore, There is nothing that sets them apart from the average dining guest. Their meal is paid for by Michelin, never by the restaurant.
What makes the Michelin Guide so fantastic is that Michelin goes to great lengths to ensure its inspectors remain anonymous. The company’s top executives have never met an inspector. Inspectors are told to not tell people in their life about what exactly they do for work. In addition, Michelin also doesn’t allow their inspectors to speak to journalists, obviously.
Once a review is complete, it gets discussed openly in annual star meetings. The ranking is discussed, 3 stars, 2 stars, 1 star or no stars.
There is a tremendous anticipation in France each year when a new guide is published. For some it is similar to the excitement felt by many about the academy awards for movies. In the 1960s, the French chef Paul Bocuse said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.”
Journalists and the public will debate for weeks who they think will be given a star and who might lose a star in that year’s guide.
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