The Michelin star has become a symbol of high-end dining and a two letter phrase which just about everyone knows. Reserved for only the finest restaurants, it screams luxury and makes one think of sweary celebrity chefs and mean-spirited portions of colourful food.
But one question has plagued mankind since the Michelin stars’ inception: is this the same Michelin that makes tyres? They’re pronounced differently so surely not? Covered in dirt, oil and roadkill, tyres couldn’t be further from white linen tablecloths and nouvelle cuisine.
However, it is indeed the Michelin tyre company who award Michelin stars - in their annual Michelin Guide. The guide has been around for over a century and the link between fine dining and tyres is actually incredibly simple.
Helmed by brothers Édouard and André Michelin, the French tyre company was actually rather niche. In 1900, there were fewer that 3,000 cars on the roads of France and those who did have cars tended to use them sparingly. Rather than try and sell tyres to people who didn’t need them, Michelin effectively decided to market the concept of travel itself.
They created a motorist’s guide to France including maps and listings of petrol stations, hotels, mechanics and - of course - instructions on how to change a tyre. The 1926 edition was the first to include stars awarded to high end restaurants and, initially, only one star could be given.
The guide had originally been free but by the late 1920s, it cost a few francs and was gaining momentum. Expanding into different countries and focusing more on food than other amenities, it became the go-to guide for travelling around Europe.
The guide now also operates in North America, South America and Asia. Talented chefs may work for decades in order to be awarded a star however, it is only ever the restaurant which holds it and not the individual.
Naturally, a huge part of the judging comes down to presentation. Speaking with David Moore, owner of Pied à Terre which has the longest standing Michelin star accreditation of any London restaurant, he tells me that to achieve two stars is a feat of creative individuality. The head chef has to find a signature style so that, like an artist, the meals are distinctly his or hers and would be recognised as such.
Meanwhile, to achieve three Michelin stars is something which even the world’s best restaurateurs don’t always understand. Sticking to their motoring routes, the specifications are alarmingly simple.
One star is awarded for high-quality cooking which is “worth a stop” (formerly just “a very good restaurant in its category”). Two stars are awarded for excellent cooking which is “worth a detour” and, finally, three stars are awarded for exceptional cuisine which is “worth a special journey”.
One might hope to gain insight from one of the Michelin inspectors however, very few people know who they are. In order to maintain the integrity of the accolade, even their marital partners aren’t allowed to know that they choose who does and doesn’t receive a star.
There are also “Michelin Guide restaurants”, which appear in the guide but don’t get a star, in addition to the Michelin Bib Gourmand which is awarded to restaurants of note which offer great value for money. “Bib” stands for Bibendum which is the actual name of their famously jolly “Michelin Man” mascot.
Its namesake (London restaurant Claude Bosi at Bibendum) occupies the former British headquarters for Michelin and features an array of Bibendum decor including impressive stained glass windows. Coming full circle, it proudly holds two Michelin stars.
However, there is said to be a heavy bias in the Michelin Guides towards French and East Asian cuisine. Its detractors argue that there isn’t enough diversity but it doesn’t actually operate all over the world. There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Africa, for instance, as this is uncharted territory where the Michelin Guide is concerned.
Of course, restaurants can also lose their stars. Gordon Ramsay’s The London in New York lost both of its stars when inspectors found that reality didn’t meet expectations. A representative for Ramsay stated: "Gordon Ramsay is not involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurants or kitchens, as is a licensing agreement, but is in communication regarding updates and changes at the restaurant."
However, Ramsey himself cried, as he explained to Norwegian talk show host Fredrik Skavlan: “I started crying when I lost my stars. It's a very emotional thing for any chef. It's like losing a girlfriend. You want her back. I think every top chef in the world, from Alain Ducasse to Guy Savoy, when you lose a star it's like losing the Champions League.”
But not all chefs hold them in such high esteem. “I don’t need Michelin and they don’t need me,” Marco Pierre White told Channel News Asia earlier this week. Not the first time to raise objection, he handed all of his stars back in 1999 and, in 2015, explained: “The people who gave me Michelin stars had less knowledge than me.”
Instrumentally, a Michelin star can be a gift and a curse. Bangkok street food vendor Raan Jay Fai received a Michelin star last year and is currently struggling to cope with the attention. “I wish I could give the star back already,” says Supinya Junsuta, Raan Jay Fai’s chef and owner.
The surge in demand and immense pressure to both satisfy customers’ whims and uphold standards can be challenging for even the most experienced restauranteurs. Yet for most chefs, it’s an accolade they can only dream of.
A household name, the Michelin star has become synonymous with decadence for diners and excellence for chefs. Initially a scheme to get people to drive more, it has become the ultimate marker of culinary perfection.