When you think of ratings for restaurants, whose system do you think of first? Michelin, of course.
Michelin launched their first guide in 1900, just nine years after they took out their first patent for a removable pneumatic tyre. The original Michelin guide was a book distributed free to car owners, cyclists and motorcyclists. The idea was to encourage people to travel more frequently and further – and, in the meantime, to wear out more tyres, thus keeping the Michelin tyre company in business. The first 60 pages (out of slightly under 400) in the first guide were devoted to explaining the marvels of the pneumatic tyre; a further hundred pages of technical details in the back meant that only just over half of the book was given over to the guide listings – which in those days consisted primarily of hotels, garages and interesting sights.
It wasn’t until 1920 that Michelin started charging for the guide; legend has it that a pile of them had been found propping up a workbench in a garage, showing that no-one would take a free guide seriously. At the same time, adverts were dropped from the guide, and restaurants were included for the first time. Six years later, the Michelin “star” (actually a rosette; people in the industry call them “macaroons”!) was introduced as a mark of especially good food, and in the early 1930s the full rating system of one, two or three stars came into being.
Nowadays, of course, the Michelin star is among the most coveted accolades a chef can aspire to, and the top rating of three stars a sort of culinary Holy Grail. Only 54 restaurants worldwide were deemed good enough to rate the full three stars in 2005. Currently the chef with the most Michelin stars is Alain Ducasse, with 13 worldwide, with Gordon Ramsay – until recently – hot on his heels with 12 (this summer he slipped back to 10 with the loss of his London restaurant Pétrus to his former protégé Marcus Wareing).
So what is it that makes the Michelin rating so valued by chefs, and so trusted by the public?
A substantial part of the trust is built up by the impartiality of the publication. Michelin’s decision to drop advertising in 1920 was a far-sighted one; they deprived themselves of a large chunk of revenue but ensured that they were seen as somehow above commercial considerations. The fact that entries could not be paid for meant that the listings were seen as being awarded on pure merit.
But the most important part of the trust is the anonymity of the inspectors. Whereas food critics to some extent trade on restaurants’ knowledge of who they are – and thus inspire (or terrorise) the chef and staff to higher standards of excellence – Michelin inspectors are just your average travelling customers, with nothing to mark them out as being different from anyone else. They don’t make a song and dance; they go in, eat their meal, pay and leave. (When researching his book Bon Appétit!, Peter Mayle asked if he could have lunch with a Michelin inspector. His request was politely turned down.)
That anonymity extends to the criteria on which restaurants are judged, too. Obviously, quality of food and drink plays a big part. But so does the overall presentation of the restaurant and staff – smartly turned-out waiters and sparkling tableware will have the edge over soiled cuffs and spotted glasses. So it’s not enough to have a great chef on the staff;standards have to be high across the board. Gordon Ramsay reportedly commented on one of his programmes that “no-one but the inspectors have the foggiest idea exactly how restaurants are rated” – although he reportedly invited an inspector, and subsequently a former president of Michelin Red, to visit one of the restaurants he’d revitalised as part of his Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares series. (Quite how he knew who the inspector was, I don’t know – perhaps they remained incognito and reported their findings anonymously?)
Michelin’s guides haven’t always been free of controversy – and we’ll be looking at that in a future post – but they’re still outstandingly successful. Just three years ago they published their first guide for a city outside Europe (New York) and have followed up with further guides in the US and Tokyo. (Hong Kong and Macau will follow in December 2008.) It looks as if the fat man in the glasses will be waving and grinning cheerfully at us for a good few years yet…