Behind the scenes… of the Michelin Guides
Each year the Michelin Guides award stars to the restaurants they judge to be the very best in the world. But who are the judges and how do they decide? Compass editor Jennifer Cox goes behind the scenes to find out.
Before there were Michelin stars, there were Michelin guidebooks. The iconic red guides were launched in France by brothers André and Edouard Michelin, who in 1898 opened a factory in Avignon selling (the then revolutionary) pneumatic tyres. By 1900, around 3,000 motorists had taken to France’s burgeoning network of roads, although most journeys proved long and arduous as the routes were complicated and the roads poorly marked, in places even dangerous.
To encourage fledgling drivers, the Michelin brothers hit upon the idea of creating a free 400-page guide filled with practical information such as how to change a tyre, where to refuel, where to eat and sleep etc… These Michelin Guides proved popular and by 1920 motorists were paying 7 francs for them (folklore has it that André Michelin introduced the charge after he saw a stack of them propping up a mechanic’s workbench, and realised people only valued information they had paid for). The same year, the Michelin brothers removed adverts from the guides and introduced a dedicated restaurant section as well as a list of hotels in Paris. This was the start of the modern Michelin Guide.
From the outset the guides featured a series of quick reference symbols. These had the advantage of communicating concise, useful information that could be understood in every language – necessary as the brothers had branched out to produce guides to Algeria and Tunisia(1907); the Alps and the Rhine (1908); Germany, Spain and Portugal (1910); Ireland and the British Isles (1911); and “The Countries of the Sun” (North Africa, southern Italy and Corsica) (1911).
As society evolved, so did the symbols. For example, in 1930 the Michelin Guides indicated hotels lit by oil lamps and candles. In 1955 it was hotels with private showers. Between 1962 and 1966 they indicated those hotels banning transistor radios in restaurants, and in 1978 it showed those accepting payment by credit card.
Michelin introduced the restaurant star system to the guides in 1926, a single star denoting a fine dining establishment. In 1931 the system was expanded to the three-star system we recognise today. These indicate:
*** Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey
** Excellent cooking, worth a detour
* High quality cooking, worth a stop
The vast majority of the restaurants included in the guides have no Michelin stars, but each has been assessed by Michelin inspectors, who book anonymously and pay their own bills so they get the same dining experience as any other customer. Michelin inspectors have to enjoy their food, as on average they eat out more than 250 times a year. Chosen from within the hospitality industry and ideally with kitchen experience, Michelin inspectors receive extensive training including shadowing experienced inspectors on assignment. The qualities that make a good inspector vary but always include attention to detail, an inquisitive nature, a love of all varieties of food and a kind of sixth sense when it comes to sniffing out food worthy of a Michelin star (and this includes spotting up-and-coming chefs). Local expertise is important, but inspectors also have to be experts across a broad range of cuisine and cultures as they will periodically be sent overseas to ensure star consistency.
When it comes to evaluating a restaurant, strict rules apply and only the quality of the food is taken into account. The rest – decor, service or facilities offered etc… – is not considered. To assess the quality of a restaurant, all Michelin Guide inspectors employ five criteria: the quality of the produce, the chef’s mastery of cooking techniques and the harmony of flavours, the chef’s culinary personality in the cuisine, value for money and, finally, consistency both over time and of the menu as a whole. These criteria guarantee a star has the same value in Paris as it does in New York or Tokyo.
Stringent rules apply to the awarding of stars, which is decided in meetings known as ‘star sessions’. Held in numerous countries and chaired by the International Director of Michelin Guides, inspectors meet and debate each restaurant’s suitability before a unanimous decision is made to award or withdraw stars. If there is any disagreement, the restaurant is revisited and re-evaluated by a different inspector until the selection can be unanimously agreed. The final results – akin to the restaurant Oscars – are announced each October, with the starry outcome eagerly anticipated by restaurants, noodle bars and gastropubs alike.
The announcement of a new crop of Michelin-starred restaurants inspires us to visit for an award-winning meal. For the Michelin inspectors, it signals the start of another marathon year of discerning dining.
The list of the Michelin star restaurants are found in the guide, which you can buy here: Great Britain & Ireland – the MICHELIN Guide 2018 (Michelin Guide/Michelin)
MICHELIN STAR SERVICE
Britain’s finest dining establishments, according to the 2018 Michelin Great Britain and Ireland Guide Awards:
- Gordon Ramsay
- Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester
- The Araki
- Fat Duck, Bray
- Waterside Inn, Bray
- Claude Bosi at Bibendum
- Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
- Le Gavroche
- Hélène Darroze at The Connaught
- Midsummer House, Cambridgeshire
- Gidleigh Park, Devon
- Le Champignon Sauvage, Gloucestershire
- Raby Hunt, County Durham
- L’Enclume, Cumbria
- Hand and Flowers, Buckinghamshire
- Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottinghamshire
- Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire
- Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Perth & Kinross