The Interesting Story Behind the Michelin Guide – It Might Surprise You.
Have you wondered how the Michelin star rating came to be…?
Well, as a leading culinary arts school, we thought we should know the whole story. After all, some of the cooks we’re training may aspire to join the ranks of restaurants recommended in the iconic Michelin Guide.
Its origins trace back to the turn of the 20th century and were inspired by a surprising turn of events that have very little – if anything – to do with cuisine.
Let’s Take a Drive Down Memory Lane…Literally
The invention of the automobile. That’s right.
The first Michelin Guide was compiled in 1900 by French industrialist Andre Michelin, along with his brother Edouard Michelin. They wanted to create demand for automobiles…and therefore, the tires they manufactured.
At the time, there were plenty of bicycles, but there were only 300 cars in France. Not enough for a viable business selling automobile tires…the brothers had a profit motive.
The first print of the Michelin Guide was 35,000 copies and included maps, instructions on how to repair and change tires. It also included a list of restaurants, hotels, mechanics and gas stations along popular routes in France.
It was given away for free.
In less than a decade, the Michelin Guide had gained speed – there were guides available in every Western European country, Northern Africa, Southern Italy and Corsica.
The World Stops…Twice
The outbreak of war in 1914 halted production, but by 1920 the guide was back on track. The brothers decided to ramp up the quality of the guide. They eliminated the advertising and started charging for it.
(Rumour has it the brothers decided to put a price tag on them when they visited a mechanic’s shop and found a stack of their free guides propping up a workbench!)
The first Michelin star ratings were given in 1926 – restaurants in France were awarded a single star if they were considered to be “fine dining establishments”.
In 1931 the rating system was expanded to become the Michelin three-star rating…
1 Star: A very good restaurant in its category.
2 Stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour.
3 Stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.
The guide took a hiatus during World War II, and only resumed late in 1939 because it contained maps that were useful to the Allied Forces.
However, the Michelin star rating was reduced to a 2-star system because of food shortages. Quality suffered at restaurants throughout Europe so the yardstick was adjusted accordingly.
In 1955, Michelin came up with a rating system that acknowledged restaurants serving high-quality fare at moderate prices. The Bib Gourmand highlights dining opportunities that are more reflective of economic standards. They are customized by region and country based on the cost of living – and gives diners a chance to eat well without breaking the bank.
The Michelin Guide Jumps the Pond
The Michelin star rating didn’t take hold in America until 2005 and concentrated solely on fine dining in New York.
Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Macau were added to the Guide between 2007-2008. It now covers 23 countries, with 14 editions sold in 90 countries around the world.
The Michelin Guide only touches on a small number of US cities – Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. If you’re an aspiring chef, you’ll want to focus on these cities after graduation if that’s your career goal.
The Michelin Guide – Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea
There’s been a growing trend to reject Michelin star ratings around the world – some restauranteurs even demanding that their star rating be removed. They feel that the expectations of the star system are unreasonable and restrict a chef’s creativity in the kitchen.
Still, in today’s culinary industry there’s a reverence held for the iconic Michelin star rating system. Some restauranteurs go so far as to say it’s the only rating that matters because it’s authentic.
And they have a point…
Since Michelin inspectors are among the few who remain completely anonymous when reviewing a restaurant. While some savvy restaurants claim to have learned the “tell” – the review will reflect the experience any diner would have…
No red carpet treatment and extra attention from the kitchen and front-of-house staff. A casual diner will have the exact same experience as the inspector.
If a restaurant is attentive enough to figure out the signals a Michelin star inspector gives away, then that’s a restaurant that pays very close attention to their craft, and is probably worth a visit!
Still Going at Full Speed After All That Mileage
In France, the release of the new Michelin Guide has the glitz and glam and media buzz of an Oscars ceremony. For the rest of the world, it’s simply considered a reliable source of information for culinary tourists and everyday diners who want an exceptional dining experience.
Have you sampled your way through any of the Michelin Guide, or Bib Gourmand? We’d love to hear about your experiences, visit us at one of our open houses and tell us about it!
Did you enjoy this article? Then you’ll probably like these ones, too.
- The History of the Chef’s Hat
- The History of Culinary Education in the U.S.
- A Brief History of the Chef’s Uniform
This article was originally published on February 10, 2016, and has since been updated.