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The Michelin Magic: Star ratings that taste real good

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At a time when India has to put Khichdi on world food map, we examine how gastronomic excellence is understood globally by looking at Michelin star rating, top accolade in the food business

1510289679-2335The image on the left shows what a Michelin star actually looks like. It is a bit strange to think that this little squiggly clip art-esque star, more like a flower than a real ‘star’, printed next to a restaurant’s name in what looks like a simple, unassuming Microsoft Word table is worth more than any medal or award you could give to a chef anywhere in the world.

Michelin Stars British Isles guide

The story of Michelin stars could actually be traced back to the beginning of the last century. France in 1900 had perhaps fewer than 3,000-4,000 cars on its roads. Brothers Édouard and André Michelin, owners of a tyre manufacturing company that bore their family name, Michelin, decided to publish the Michelin Guide to boost the demand for cars, car usage and by consequence car tyres. The brothers printed nearly 35,000 copies of this first, free edition of the Michelin Guide, which provided useful information to motorists, such as maps, tyre repair and replacement instructions, car mechanics listings, hotels, and petrol stations throughout France. In 1904, a similar guide to Belgium was published. A guide to the British Isles first appeared in 1911.


The guide was taken to other countries by the Michelin brothers, with editions appearing soon in Algeria and Tunisia; then the Alps and the Rhine (northern Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria, and the Netherlands); soon in Germany, Spain and Portugal; then as said before in 1911 in the British Isles and Ireland; in the same year in ‘The Countries of the Sun’ (Les Pays du Soleil … Northern Africa, Southern Italy and Corsica). In fact by 1909 the Michelin guide for France actually had its first English-language version.

The First World War saw the suspension of the publication of the guide. In 1922, the Michelin brothers, based on the principle that ‘man only truly respects what he pays for’ decided to start charging a price for the guide … 750 francs or USD 2.15, a fairly stiff pay out for those times. Several changes were made to the guide. Restaurants started to be listed by specific categories. Debut of new hotels was announced. And the Michelin brothers barred the carrying of advertisements in the guide. Most importantly, the brothers employed a team of anonymous ‘inspectors’ to visit and review restaurants … and that really was the start of the Michelin restaurant guide as we understand it today.

In 1926, the guide began to award stars for fine dining establishments. Initially, there was only a single star awarded. Then, in 1931, the hierarchy of zero, one, two, and three stars was introduced. Finally, in 1936, the criteria for the starred rankings were published:

 

Michelin rating decoded

In 1931 the cover of the guide was changed from blue to red, and has remained so in all subsequent editions.

Today the Michelin star rating is almost like an Olympics games tally of medals. Global standing in cuisine and fine dining is almost singly decided by the number of Michelin stars that adorn restaurants in a country. There are other fine dining guides like the Miele guide, the Zagat and of course the famous New York Times guide, but Michelin remains by far the gold standard.

The Michelin Guide awards restaurants 0 to 3 stars basis anonymous reviews filed by their ‘inspectors’. These inspectors focus on the quality, mastery of technique, personality and consistency of the food, in arriving at the reviews that are published and awarded the stars. The reviews do not take into account the interior décor, table setting, or service quality in awarding stars, though the guide shows forks and spoons which describes how fancy or casual a restaurant actually is. This of course is vastly different from the reviews put out by Forbes which not only look at ambiance and décor, but some say look at over 800 criteria which include details like whether the restaurant offers solid or hollow ice cubes, freshly squeezed or canned orange juice, and valet parking or self-parking.

 Michelin have always maintained that they rate the restaurants, not the chefs. It is for this reason that Maxim’s, the famous Paris restaurant flaunted its stars in the early part of the 20th century purely as a fine dining destination without any of its chefs really becoming famous. Today, however, because restaurants become so closely identified with their chefs, it is becoming harder and harder to say who got the stars: the restaurant or the chef. When a famous chef leaves a restaurant, Michelin has been known to often take away its stars. And when great chefs moved to new restaurants, Michelin has a way of ensuring that their stars travel with them! So, today it is common to speak of ‘Michelin-starred chefs’ though in theory, the stars continue to be given to the restaurants, not to the men who cook in them.

 Since 1955, the guide has also highlighted restaurants offering ‘exceptionally good food at moderate prices’, a feature now called ‘Bib Gourmand’. These restaurants must offer menu items priced below a maximum determined by local economic standards. Bib (Bibendum) is the company’s nickname for the Michelin Man, its corporate logo for over a century.

 The Michelin Guide also awards Rising Stars, an indication that a restaurant has the potential to qualify for a star, or an additional star. This can considerably boost the standing of a restaurant in the business.

 All listed restaurants, regardless of their star – or Bib Gourmand – status, also receive a ‘fork and spoon’ designation, as a subjective reflection of the overall comfort and quality of the restaurant. Rankings range from one to five: One fork and spoon represents a ‘comfortable restaurant’ and five signifies a ‘luxurious restaurant’. Forks and spoons coloured red designate a restaurant that is considered ‘pleasant’ as well.

 Restaurants, independent of their other ratings in the Guide, can also receive a number of other symbols next to their listing.

  •  Coins indicate restaurants that serve a menu for a certain price or less, depending on the local monetary standard. In 2010 France, 2011 US and Japan Red Guides, the maximum permitted ‘coin’ prices were Euro 19, USD 25, and Yen 5000, respectively.
  • Interesting view or Magnificent view, designated by a black or red symbol, are given to restaurants offering those features.
  • Grapes, a sake set, or a cocktail glass indicate restaurants that offer, at minimum, a ‘somewhat interesting’ selection of wines, sake, or cocktails, respectively.

 The Michelin journey has not been without controversy. In 2004, Pascal Rémy, a Michelin inspector wrote a tell-all book, L’Inspecteur se met à table, which translated into English would perhaps mean, ‘The Inspector Puts It All on the Table’ which was highly critical of his employers. Rémy felt that the Michelin Guide had started to become lax in its standards with much fewer inspectors actually going out to sample and rate restaurants than what Michelin claimed. He also accused Michelin of favouritism alleging that famous and influential chefs like Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse were literally ‘untouchable’ and subject to much lesser rigour in the rating compared to lesser known chefs. He basically hinted that Michelin did not dare to undermine 3-star chefs or ever mess with them.

 Michelin have also been often accused of having a French bias, so much so that some have gone to the extent of calling it a tool of Gallic cultural imperialism. In the same breath, Michelin has been heaped criticism in the past for giving out an undeserved number of stars in Japan which detractors said was designed to enable the parent tyre-selling company to market itself better in Japan!

 A falling star (!) in the Michelin world is really bad news. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay reportedly cried when the Michelin Guide stripped the stars from his New York restaurant, calling the food ‘erratic’. Ramsay explained that losing the stars was like ‘losing a girlfriend’.

 India still has to get on to the Michelin map of gastronomy.

Why India does not figure in Michelin’s scheme of things

It is a bitter truth that there is hardly any Indian restaurant of consequence in any of the world rankings. The world barometer of excellence in cuisine, the Michelin Guide, does not even have an Indian footprint and none of the restaurants it rates worldwide (across 25 countries) actually includes a restaurant serving Indian delicacies. Howsoever much we may think that the entire world now relishes Indian curry, and Britain dies for chicken-tikka-masala, Indian cuisine unfortunately does not really feature on the world gastronomic map.

To answer the question as to why the Michelin Guide is not there in India, a simplistic answer is that the Michelin Guide is actually a brand extension for the Michelin tyre company. Michelin tyres have a near-zero presence in India and, therefore, the tyre company has no real reason to create and promote the Michelin restaurant guide in India. This argument, even if marginally true, is actually facetious, if not entirely frivolous.  The truth is much deeper.

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