The Michelin Guide’s star system is 90 years old this year

The Michelin star system turns 90 this year. Elizabeth Matsangou explores the past, present and future of the iconic Michelin Guide, one of the greatest marketing ploys of the 20th century

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At the close of the 19th century, two brothers, André and Édouard Michelin, established what was to become one of the biggest tyre manufacturers on the planet. Known everywhere as the company behind the instantly recognisable jolly character with bountiful white rolls, today Michelin is one of the world’s biggest brands. Naturally, achieving this success comes down to consistency and excellence in the company’s product range. However, there has been another pivotal arm to its success, a marketing strategy that many may still presume to be simply a coincidence in nomenclature: the Michelin Guide, with its world-famous ‘stars’ ranking system.

When the Michelin brothers came onto the scene, there were but a few thousand cars in France – at the time, they were still a novelty and a Sunday plaything for the rich. The two were convinced, however, that the automobile would become a viable mode of transport for everyone, and that it would make journeys shorter and a whole lot easier for all. As a way to promote this radical idea, André and Édouard created a book in 1900 to provide information about changing tyres, maps, where to refuel and places to stay for weary travellers. The ambitious pair even made travel posts and signs to help motorists along their way. Their belief was that by making road travel easier, automobiles would become more popular and, thus, more tyres would be used. Little did they know the impact their curious book would have on modern-day culture.

When the Michelin brothers came onto the scene, there were but a few thousand cars in France – at the time, they were still a novelty and a Sunday plaything for the rich

Star turn
The little red book quickly grew in size as more information was added, particularly when hotel and restaurant reviews were included. As motoring increased in popularity, so did the Guide and, in 1908, international expansion began with Belgium, followed by the UK just three years later.

Although the Guide sold more copies with each passing year, it still lacked prestige and a certain je ne sais quoi. Recognising this, the brothers began charging for the book in 1920. However, the most pivotal moment came in 1926, when the star rating system was introduced, thereby shaping the Guide into the prestigious encyclopaedia of restaurants it is known as today. A decade later, the second and third star criteria were added, respectively given for ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’ and ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’.

The Guide has since spread to over 20 countries, stretching as far as Japan and Australia. “To the restaurant industry it is the benchmark of quality, since all chefs know that a Michelin star cannot be purchased. This sets it aside from almost all other restaurant guides, which are either based on public voting or have (often hidden) fees or advertising that comprise the independence of the assessments”, said Andy Hayler, restaurant critic and expert in Michelin-starred restaurants. It is this point that makes the Michelin Guide so unique and earns it the respect that it commands. “This business model is very rare indeed, and indeed can only be sustained because the Michelin tyre company regards it as a useful marketing tool and is prepared to subsidise it.”

So respected is the Guide that a Michelin star is now the ultimate achievement for any aspiring chef (followed by a second or a third, of course). Arguably, it is the level of objectivity maintained by Michelin’s highly secretive rating process, including anonymous inspectors, which has propelled it to such esteem in the culinary world. “Today, the internet provides a lot of different sources of information and reviews of restaurants. In fact, in some way, restaurant reviews have become crowdsourced. Some people think this crowdsourcing makes the Guide less relevant. I don’t necessarily agree”, explained Gary Pisano, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. “I think with so much information and so many opinions available, the value of a carefully considered review and rating system can be even more important.”

Having a star is not just a matter of pride for chefs; it can have a huge impact on business as well. Although it is difficult to quantify exactly how much, estimates of revenue increases range from 20 to 50 percent. Equally, losing a star can do much damage, causing a steep decline in diners and revenue, and in some cases it can even lead to an establishment closing down.

Critical critique
Despite the level of respect that the Michelin Guide commands around the world, criticisms of its processes and ratings are plentiful. There are some that find its decisions to grant a star or strip one away baffling, while numerous renowned restaurants are omitted all together. “In a few cases, there are ‘untouchable’ places – Paul Bocuse in Lyon is an obvious example – that [some] people believe are no longer operating at the three-star level, yet due to the chefs’ stature in France, Michelin seems reluctant to demote [them]”, explained Hayler. There is also growing condemnation regarding the irregularity in ratings from country to country. “For example, France and Germany seem to me to be marked harder than the US or UK, and the assessments of the Hong Kong Michelin are as baffling as a Chinese puzzle”, Hayler added.

For a long time, the system was frequently panned for favouring French restaurants and classic French cuisine – a criticism that still continues today. “The Guide seems to stand for a particular style of cuisine and presentation. I think as long as it is really clear about its biases and tastes, then that is fine. It becomes the reference point for that style of restaurant. It is not the Guide adjudicating overall quality”, Pisano observed. Arguably, such criticism can now be waived given that, in 2010, Japan overtook France as the country with the most Michelin-starred restaurants. As such, Tokyo has now become the gastronomic capital of the world, with 150 starred restaurants, far surpassing Paris’ 78 and New York’s 42.

Many would say that the cost of maintaining Michelin standards, sourcing the very best ingredients and paying big pay packets for highly skilled chefs is simply unsustainable. The overheads for a dining establishment only allow for small margins in ordinary circumstances, so swelling them to the brink can prove to be unfeasible in the long term. That said, having a star justifies price increases for a restaurant, yet how much they can spike without pricing out regulars and locals is a fine balance to achieve.

Purposely trying to maintain a star is in fact a frequently cited problem, as many establishments have been accused of catering to the Guide rather than their customers. In doing so, chefs have been reproached for fanciful and unnecessarily complex dishes, which also plays into the notion that Michelin inspectors show bias towards fine dining establishments, despite the Guide’s ethos of rating restaurants solely on the quality of the food. What’s more, the pressure of keeping stars is certainly enough to cause extreme stress to even the steeliest of nerves. It is even cited as a factor in the suicide of renowned chef Bernard Loiseau in 2003, amid rumours that his restaurant La Côte d’Or was about to lose its third star.

There are chefs, however, that feel constrained by the system. “The harm that can come to a business striving to maintain or even acquire a rank is the same as the problems of writing a test”, said Mukti Khaire, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School. “Innovation and creativity are lost, the joy a creator gets from creating is diminished, and consequently quality drops, leading to diminished business prospects.” In fact, so irked are some with the lack of freedom that can come with a star, they have even relinquished the coveted title. Julio Biosca reportedly renounced his star for his Valencia-based restaurant Casa Julio in 2013, as he wanted to innovate with a simpler menu. With a desire to cook fried chicken and the like, Belgian chef Frederick Dhooge followed suit the year after.

Guidance evolution
Despite staying true to its values, the Guide has evolved over time, albeit at a somewhat slow pace. For example, until quite recently it was forbidden for a restaurant to advertise that it had received a star. This ongoing transition experienced a jolt under the leadership of Jean-Luc Naret, who took over as international director in 2003 and was responsible for expanding the brand to new markets in North America and Asia. It was also at this time that Michelin began awarding stars to more casual establishments, such as pubs, which now account for a score of stars in the UK.

This new pub trend is helping to change Michelin’s reputation for recognising only expensive establishments, a process it began in 1997 with the addition of the Bib Gourmand section for restaurants that offer good value for money, thereby helping to dispel the notion that the Guide only rates establishments frequented by the rich. Using feedback from readers, changes continue to be made. In 2000, for example, brief descriptions were added to restaurants and hotels in order to supplement the long-standing tradition of Michelin’s symbols.

Of course, various elements of the Michelin system that have long been criticised remain. As such, there is space for further evolution, particularly in terms of adopting a more open and inclusive approach in order to maintain the level of objectivity on which the Guide’s reputation rests. “I would like the process to be much more transparent. I think that is good for the customer and good for the restaurants. Ultimately, that will be good for the Guide”, Pisano noted. Moreover, Michelin could celebrate modern trends such as casual dining and street food, which are often the most loved types of cuisine a city has to offer.

For the foodies
The Michelin Guide is a great vehicle of promotion for the restaurant business and has even become a point of interest for those outside the culinary sphere. In fact, today, food has become so much more than just a mode of sustenance; it is an endless topic and cultural reference point. The ‘foodie’ revolution encompasses television shows, recipe books, countless blogs and magazines all devoted to the subject. In conjunction with this rising popularity is the growing prominence of the Michelin Guide. Starred chefs become beloved celebrities, regularly appearing in the media, cultivating their own fan bases along with broadening the customer bases at their restaurants. “The foodie culture that is prevalent today is not necessarily new, but the scale – the number of people interested in food as a cultural experience – is probably unprecedented. Like many other cultural phenomena, there is no single cause, nor is there a clear, linear relationship between this mindset and any social, cultural or commercial factor. That said, rising prosperity and exposure to global cuisines and culture (through travel and trade) are probably the two main influences. Add to that a growing culture of experimentation among chefs and consumers alike, and you have a population that is interested in food as an experience rather than just nourishment”, Khaire explained.

Visiting starred restaurants is a hobby for some, a reason to travel far for many, and the first port of call when going abroad for growing numbers. With travel being much easier and cheaper than ever before, doing so is not restricted to the rich either. Ironically, this is the very thing that the Michelin brothers hoped to achieve when first coming up with the Guide. Over a century after it was first introduced, the book still promotes travel effectively and offers individuals the opportunity to visit establishments that they can rely on for a certain standard of excellence. All the while, the Guide continues to boost the Michelin brand around the entire globe, with various countries and cities clamouring for inclusion, for wherever there are roads and restaurants, the Guide could very soon appear.