Let me start with a disclosure: I have co-written the Michelin Green Guide to Singapore (about two-thirds of the book is mine) and the Michelin Guide to Rio (a fifth); I have extensively rewritten the Michelin Green Guide to Switzerland (German part); and I have updated parts of the guides to Austria and Greece.
But I have also described a meal in a three-star Michelin-rated restaurant. You see, like many others, the words ‘Michelin guide‘ bring to my mind the red guides; those that rate chefs around the world and allocate one, two or three stars to their restaurants. Gastronomy and Michelin have become synonymous.
It wasn’t always so. The first red guide was published in 1900, and it included mainly information on where to buy petrol for France’s 3,000 motorists. After all, Michelin made, and still makes, tyres. The red guide was distributed free until 1920, when a price was set ‘to gain more respect’. It only mentioned restaurants and hotels near the then petrol suppliers as a secondary service.
Mapping was the second major branch of Michelin. After all, motorists needed to drive on roads, and new asphalted routes had to be mapped. So Michelin mapped France and then the world; for this it invented the accordion map that fits in a pocket which we all know and love – or those of you who can refold it once opened. I can’t.
By 1914 the idea of checking the maps’ accuracy with aerial photos had also taken root. And in 1944, it was Michelin maps that were distributed to the Normandy landing troops, since the Germans had destroyed all road signs (themselves a Michelin idea) in occupied France.
By the 1950s there were enough petrol stations for motorists, but by then the birth-instilled interest among the French in finding a good restaurant was enough for the red guides to change direction. A small troop of five Michelin food inspectors was employed (it’s many more now) and the rules of the game defined.
A typical Michelin inspector is a man (only few women have been hired and these recently) who has a hotel diploma and is himself a chef or a sommelier by trade. He eats about 240 meals a year, travels 30,000 kilometres and remains incognito in every one of 130 hotels he overnights. He only lets the visited establishment know he’s an inspector once the meal (or room) is paid; it is only then he will visit the kitchens. He will not return to the same place within at least five years.
Judgment is upon the quality of food, the service, the decor and what is frequently forgotten: consistency. Starred restaurants are visited by several inspectors 2-15 times a year depending on the number of stars . Only if the quality of food remains sound in the opinion of different inspectors do the starred restaurants keep their status.
How do I know all that? Am I a Michelin inspector? After all, I have written Green Guides, have I not?
Ah, but the Michelin employees have signed a vow of secrecy.
PS. Ok, OK. The answer lies in the photo caption.