Michelin star: what is it?
Regarded by many as the ultimate hallmark of culinary excellence, Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants judged to be of a particularly high standard. Eateries that make the grade can be awarded one, two, or three stars, and the accolade is much-coveted by chefs around the world.
But what is the history of the Michelin star? And how did a tyre company become a leading authority in the world of cuisine? The Michelin Guide has been published annually since 1900 and was originally intended to help drivers find mechanics, hotels, and of course, good restaurants, on their travels. The star system was first introduced in 1926, with a single star denoting “a very good restaurant”. The second and third stars were added in 1933, with two stars meaning "excellent cooking that is worth a detour", and three stars "exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey".
In the years that followed, the popularity of the scheme spread overseas, with guides published for major cities around the world. The company also enlisted the help of the legendary Michelin Inspectors, and developed the rigorous system of testing that has made the Michelin Guide the fine-dining bible it is today.
How are Michelin stars awarded?
Unlike other rating systems, Michelin stars are not based on customer reviews, but on undercover inspections by anonymous food experts known as the Michelin Inspectors. Inspectors remain anonymous to avoid being given preferential treatment and undergo official Michelin Guide training in France. They are not allowed to speak to the press, but it is generally thought that most will have at least some experience in the restaurant business. Anyone hoping to become a Michelin Inspector must be passionate and knowledgeable about food, with good attention to detail, and the ability to blend in with ordinary customers.
The judging criteria is the same for each restaurant, focusing on the quality of the ingredients, cooking techniques and, most importantly, taste. Michelin stars are awarded solely on the standard of cuisine, so inspectors will not consider things like restaurant decor or ambience when awarding stars, although the comfort and quality is rated from 1 to 5 using a crossed fork and spoon symbol.
Restaurant owners are not told when the inspection will take place, and an inspector may return around 3 to 6 times before reporting back to their fellow inspectors, who then come to a joint decision about whether or not to award stars. A restaurant can be rated from 0-3 stars, and there is also a ‘Bib Gourmand’ award for restaurants offering quality food at a reasonable price.
Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants, rather than to individual chefs, so chefs who run more than one establishment can hold more than three stars. The record for most Michelin stars ever belonged to the late Joël Robuchon, who once held an impressive 32 Michelin stars in total. Most restaurants, however, will not meet Michelin standards, and the majority of restaurants inspected are awarded zero stars.
Those who do make the grade are reinspected frequently and can lose their stars if the inspectors feel that standards have slipped. Even the most well-known chefs can fall foul of the Michelin inspectors' strict standards. Gordon Ramsay was reportedly reduced to tears when his New York restaurant was stripped of its stars, saying it was like ‘losing a girlfriend’. Restaurants can try to win back lost stars in the following years’ Guide, but as the exact judging criteria is not known this can sometimes be a difficult task.
‘High quality cooking, worth a stop!’, according to the current Michelin Guide. One Michelin star may be the lowest award, but it is still a high accolade and may denote a new cooking talent who could be one to watch in future. Only a tiny proportion of restaurants worldwide hold even one star - the city with the most is currently Tokyo, with 161 restaurants boasting one Michelin star out of the tens of thousands of across the city.
Notable establishments with one Michelin star include Hawker Chan, a Singaporean hawker stall that was recognised in 2016 for its delicious street food. The gourmet on a budget can purchase Hawker Chan’s award-winning soya chicken and noodles for around two US dollars.
‘Excellent cooking, worth a detour!’, according to the Michelin Guide. Restaurants with two Michelin stars are even rarer, with only 414 worldwide at the beginning of 2020.
Two-star restaurants offer consistently high-quality food and are owned by some of the best chefs in the business. They are likely to be well-known establishments in the world of fine dining, and many will have long waiting lists for reservations.
Notable restaurants with two Michelin stars include London’s La Gavroche, which specialises in classical French cuisine and is run by chef patron Michel Roux Jnr. La Gavroche was the first restaurant in the UK to achieve a Michelin star, back in 1974, and chefs that have worked in its kitchens include Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. Signature dishes include Soufflé Suissesse, Le Caneton Gavroche, and Omelette Rothschild.
Another two-star restaurant is the hugely popular Copenhagen eaterie, Noma, which is frequently ranked among the best restaurants in the world despite its lack of a third star. Founded by chef René Redzepi and culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer, Noma is known for its reinterpretation of Nordic cuisine, and famous dishes include ‘The Hen and The Egg’, which is cooked by the diners themselves.
‘Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey!’, according to the Michelin Guide. Three stars are awarded to only the very best restaurants, with only 137 restaurants worldwide currently attaining this highest of all badges of achievement.
Three-star restaurants offer the ultimate in fine dining and are run by chefs recognised the world over for their contribution to the culinary arts. These restaurants are as good as it gets, offering a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience, and are always in high demand.
All three-star restaurants are notable in their own way, but the restaurant that has held onto the accolade for the longest is Les Prés d'Eugénie, which was first awarded three stars in 1977, and has been creating world-leading food ever since. Les Prés d'Eugénie is owned by chef patron Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine and his wife Christine, and forms part of a spa complex in the small French town of Eugénie-les-Bains. Guérard is one of France’s best-known chefs, and his signature dishes include Tsarina egg with caviar; Soft Pillow of Morels and Wild Mushrooms; and Lobster Lightly Smoked in the Hearth.