Michelin stars

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English Matters 46/2014 included an interesting story about Molecular Gastronomy. In it, the author mentioned a particular restaurant which caused tidal waves in the restaurant industry for its innovative use of the ingredients and cooking methods. Before it closed in 2011, Spain’s El Bulli restaurant was one of the world’s most famous, with a waiting list about two years long! The restaurant was also one of only a handful around the world which had three Michelin stars. What are they and how they are awarded is what we will be seeing today!

 A star shines bright

It is funny how a company famous for making rubber car tyres would get in the business of food criticism. The story starts in 1900, when the founders of the French Michelin tyre company were looking for a way to make a bigger profit. At that time there were only around 3,000 cars in the whole of France, and the Michelin brothers (that was the family surname) took it upon themselves to increase the demand for cars (and therefore car tyres).

What they did was publish the world’s first auto guide. In it, motorists could find maps, instructions to change wheels, locations of mechanics, hotels and restaurants. The first print run was of 35,000 copies, and was given free to drivers.

About two decades later Mr Michelin noticed that a tyre distributor was using the guides to hold up his workbench. Working on the principle of “people only respect what they pay for,” the company started charging money for the guides.

A 1911 advert for the Michelin guide (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

A 1911 advert for the Michelin guide (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Among the other changes which were introduced were serious reviews of restaurants. The brothers employed a small army of anonymous inspectors who would travel the length and breadth of the country and sample the best food which French chefs had to offer. In 1926, the star system was introduced. One star means that the chef provides excellent food, while three stars means that the restaurant in question deserves a special journey.

 Dreaming among the stars

Nowadays, chefs make it their life’s mission to gain the coveted stars, and they are among the most respected signs of judging a restaurant. Only a handful of three-star ratings are given. France has a mere 26, while culinary titan Italy has only seven. The taking of a star can also mean disaster for a chef in question, as patrons might consider this a huge demotion.

 Did you know?

Restaurants run by French chef Joël Robuchon – in Las Vegas, Macau, Paris, Tokyo and more – have collected 28 stars among them (more than any chef in the world).

Michelin’s company mascot (the man made out of white tyres) is called Bibendum

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