Michelin Stars: highly coveted awards given to restaurants for food excellence. But how did they start, what do they mean and are they worth taking any notice of?
The first Michelin Guide was published way back in 1900 by Andre Michelin, the then co-owner of the Michelin Tyre Company. The aim of the guide was to provide motorists touring and travelling through France with a wealth of information, including recommendations on where to find a good meal and reliable accommodation.
The dining section of the Michelin Guide became so popular that by 1920 Michelin had to employ a team of inspectors who would anonymously visit restaurants and rate them on a three category basis. And so the Michelin Star was born. A 1 star restaurant was defined as ‘A very good restaurant in its category,’ a 2 star restaurant as ‘Excellent cooking – worth a detour,’ and the 3 star rating was given to restaurants serving ‘Exceptional cuisine worthy of a special journey.’
Initially, the ratings were only given to restaurants in France and did not include restaurants in Paris. However, with its increasing popularity, the Guide soon extended to Parisian establishments and was further extended to cover other European countries. By the 1933 edition of the Guide, 23 restaurants in France were rated with 3 stars.
During the 1940’s the 3 star rating system was dropped for a period of time but by 1951 the star rating was back, this time with fewer restaurants achieving the maximum accolade of 3 stars. These days, Michelin stars are awarded extremely sparingly and only to those restaurants of outstanding quality.
As in the past, Michelin employs inspectors to anonymously visit and evaluate establishments with an aim to pick consistently high quality establishments across a range of cuisines, styles and budgets. Here in Wales there are 5 Michelin starred restaurants (according to the 2015 Guide), two of which are located here in Monmouthshire – The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny and The Crown at Whitebrook.
Despite the fame of the Michelin star, there are many people who believe that they are meaningless, especially because they depend on individuals giving a personal opinion, which, while supposedly unbiased, cannot help but be swayed by personal likes and dislikes. A tell-all book, published by former Michelin inspector Pascal Remy in 2004 entitled L’Inspecteur se Met a Table, accused the guide of being lax in its standards and of favouritism towards influential chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse. Additionally, there have been accusations that Michelin is biased towards Japanese cuisine with Japan being ranked as the country with the most starred restaurants in 2010. This reason for this so-called bias? Allegedly to enable the parent tyre-selling company to market itself in Japan.
Whatever your opinion, it’s generally universally accepted that a restaurant with a Michelin Star to its name serves pretty good grub. As for the restaurant itself having to live up to the pressure of maintaining the star and standards of high quality…that’s a different story!