Monday, January 19, 2015

The Michelin Star

The Michelin star. Is it an historical relic or still relevant? 

Travelers since 1900 (yes, THAT long ago) have relied on The Michelin Guides for help in planning travels to cities and countries. That first Michelin Guide was published in France by Andre and Edouard Michelin, the tire manufacturers, as a hopeful way to drive up tourism, the need for more cars and, ultimately, more tires. They printed 35,000 copies and gave it away for free, hoping the information about hotels, gas stations, hints on tire repairs, car maintenance, and maps would get people on the road. Perhaps they were on to something? The Michelin brothers eventually added other European countries and publication was stopped only during World War I. It has been a travel standard over many decades.

The Company's website says that the guides were given away free until Andre noticed that the guys in a tire shop had used one to prop up a piece of equipment. The brothers adopted the adage "a man only respects what he pays for" policy and began charging for the guides. It was around this time that they also started to include and review restaurants. The brothers hired a group of reviewers whose job was to travel the country (at this time it was only in France) and secretly review restaurants.

Crispy Duck and Waffles from Momofoko in NYC, a
two Michelin Star restaurant
1926 was the inaugural year for the Michelin Star. Back in those days, you either had a star or you didn't. You had a 50/50 chance to make it in the Guide and enjoy the boost in business. Five years later they introduced the three-star review system and five years later revealed to the world the meaning of those coveted stars:
  • *      "A very good restaurant in its category" 
  • **    "Excellent cooking, worth a detour" 
  • ***  "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey" 

It wasn't until 2005 that Michelin published its first guide in the United States. That guide contained reviews for 500 New York restaurants.

So.......I'd like to know HOW one scores a gig like becoming a Michelin reviewer? They must remain completely anonymous as they travel about. Sounds like a great job for me-I'm a blend-in-the-woodwork kind of girl, quiet and unassuming. No one would ever guess if I were a Michelin inspector!!

I could travel around and eat fabulous things like
this gorgeous dessert. Picture from Sarah Gomez.
What do American chefs have to say about the Michelin rating? Some have never heard of it, others think it's archaic and in the Internet age, irrelevant. I talked to chefs who feel that in the U.S. a James Beard nomination or award is more important in this modern day and others who would be extremely humbled just to be considered for either. Overall, the chefs that I talked to said they think that the James Beard nomination/award is more important in the U.S. and they don't really give much thought to Michelin. They are just happy to be doing what they love and having people enjoy what they create. 

Dessert from Le Bernardin in NYC,
a three Michelin Star restaurant.
The Michelin Guide has not been without some bumps in the road. Once called "the only guide that matters" it has been accused of showing preference to certain chefs, and being harsher on restaurants that differ from classic French cooking. Michelin claims to review a restaurant every 18 months but at least one former inspector claims it was typically twice that long between visits due to the reduced amount of inspectors on staff. 

Do we still value these old ranking systems or have we let technology and the Internet help us form opinions and make plans when traveling or eating out? Have you ever visited a Michelin Star restaurant, or even know or care? I know I would LOVE to be able to visit as many as I can. Michelin now has guides for all over the U.S. and Chicago is not too far away....... maybe it's not such an impossible dream after all!

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