Dish at the Michelin-Starred Vertig’O Restaurant in the luxurious Hotel de la Paix Genève, Switzerland
by Rose Maramba
Why would a tire company want people to go dine out? You got it: so they’d get out their cars and drive the distance—the longer the better—wearing out their tires in the process and buy new ones.
That’s precisely what made André and Édouard Michelin, who founded the Michelin Tyre Company (Michelin uses the British spelling “tyre”) in Clermont-Ferrand, France in 1889, publish a traveler’s guidebook. And, boy, did they hit the nail on the head.
To enthuse drivers, the enterprising brothers published nearly 35,000 free copies of a little red guidebook distributed around France in 1900 containing maps, gas pump locations, car mechanics, where to eat along the way, where to spend the night should there be a need, and even how to change tires. That last was a clever way of telling the drivers without saying it out loud not to forget about tires!
With all this cunning, not only would car owners be tempted to hit the road for the fun of it but those who didn’t own cars – there were then less than 3000 cars in France – would hopefully be tempted to buy, thus boosting tire sales too.
Today, the Michelin Guide habitually tops France’s bestseller list during the tourist season (March-September). And yet, as Michelin says, despite huge sales they hardly make – even lose some – money from the publication. Not that it matters. For many, the Micheline Guide is the Gold Standard of the hotel and restaurant industry. It is the guide to culinary excellence.
What with so enormous a prestige, the Guide can’t help but create an image of quality for the Michelin company that ultimately redounds to greater number of tires sold. And that has always been the bottom line that matters. After all, it’s the multi-billion tire sales that give Michelin its hundreds-of-million-dollar annual profit.
Because the Guide Michelin in France turned out to be quite a hit, by 1904 the Michelins issued a Guide for Belgium, followed by Guides for Algeria and Tunisia (1907); northern Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria, and the Netherlands the following year; Germany, Spain, and Portugal in 1910; the British Isles in 1911, and so forth and so on. The persistent criticism that Michelin Guide has a strong French bias when it comes to awarding Stars doesn’t seem to tangibly impact the Guides negatively.
Two decades after it was first launched, the Michelins began to sell the guidebook (1920) for seven francs. Expanding its content, it included a list of hotels and restaurants in Paris, the latter divided into different categories. Also, they did away with paid advertisements so it would appear that there was no commercial bias in the new book.
The potent influence of the guidebook’s restaurant section springs from the reviews issued by a team of mystery diners—now called Inspectors—who ate anonymously in restaurants. So mysterious are the Inspectors that critics claim there’s too much opaqueness and too little transparency.
Michelin Inspectors, many of whom have degrees from prestigious hotel and culinary schools, are culled from the restaurant and hospitality industry. They receive a minimum of one-year training at and with Michelin, are employed full-time and sent out all over the world (actually Europe, the Americas and Asia but not Africa) on their incognito mission. As a team, they make the final decision, in the name of the Michelin company, on which restaurant gets how many Stars.
In other words, it was the Michelin Tyre Company who awarded the stars. It still is a century later.
Six short years after the mystery eating was initiated, Michelin Guide began awarding a star each to deserving high-end fine-dining establishments (1926) which was upped to as many as three Stars in just another five years.
Michelin Star defined
A Michelin Star or two or three is awarded for outstanding cooking sustained over time. It is awarded for the food on the plate alone, not for how it is served in what kind of restaurant. However, service and restaurant styles are a factor in the awarding of the Stars though Michelin is loath to admit this publicly.
Inspectors take into account the use of top-quality ingredients and masterful culinary techniques. It is important that the cuisine embody the chief chef’s signature style so that it is definitively his and his alone. (On the other hand, Michelin cautions that stars are given to the restaurant too, and not just to the chef.)
In 1936 when the Star criteria were first published, Michelin Guide pointed out that
One star represents “a very good restaurant in its category.”
Two-Star is a restaurant with “excellent cooking worth a detour.”
Three-Star means “exceptional cuisines, worth a special journey.”
Three Stars, the Guide’s highest award, represents “superlative cooking” elevated to “an art form”. So much so that the dishes in question are “destined to become classics.”
Presently, there are more than 3000 Michelin-starred restaurants in some 40 countries.
Many more are listed starless in the Guide.
GREEN STAR: THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
Green Star debuted in several 2021 editions of the Michelin Guide in different parts of the world. A restaurant in the Michelin Guide that offers culinary excellence alongside outstanding eco-friendly commitments is a potential candidate for a Green Star.
Eco-friendly within the Green Star context denotes working with sustainable sources in order that waste is avoided and non-recyclable materials are dropped out from the supply chain.
Eco-friendly means adherence to ethical and environmental standards—what in a sense is cuisine with a sense of responsibility toward the planet we all live on.
INCIDENTALLY, THE BIB GOURMAND
Bib Gourmand is a distinction given by Michelin to “friendly establishments that serve good food at moderate prices.” A value-for-money dining.
Bib Gourmand is “not quite a star,” says Michelin, “but most definitely not a consolation prize” either.
Bib is short for Bibendum, the Michelin Man and congenial official company mascot for the Michelin Group.
Featured image/Hotel de la Paix Genève, CC BY-SA2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
André Michelin/Agence de Presse Meurisse, PD via Wikimedia Commons
Édouard Michelin/Pierre Souvestre, PD via Wikimedia Commons
Michelin tire advertisement /Ernest Montaut (1878-1909), PD per Wikimedia Commons. Frame supplied
Guide Michelin early edtions/Benoît Prieur, CCO via Wikimedia Commons
Bocuse/Éric Messel, CC YB-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Michelin Star/Nicolaos Dimos, CC BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Twins Garden Stars/Mos.ru, CC BY2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A21 food/Sami Faju, source: Flickr. CC BY2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.
Bib Gourmand/Ritamercanti, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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