France’s Michelin, the go-to guide on fine dining

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France’s prestigious Michelin Guide is among the world’s most influential references on gourmet dining, its star ratings highly coveted and sometimes controversial.

Ahead of the publication of its 2022 edition on Tuesday, here is some background.

– More than 120 years old –

French tire manufacturer Michelin brought out a travel guide in 1900, the early days of the automobile, to encourage motorists to take to the road and so boost its business.

The free, red guidebook included maps, instructions on how to change tires, and lists of mechanics and hotels along the route.

The first run of 35,000 copies was such a success that guides for Belgium, Germany, Portugal, and Spain followed.

In 2021, in a small revolution, an edition was published for those wanting to discover France by regional train, rather than by car.

– Star rating –

The guide included restaurant listings from 1920, when it started charging for the publication. It began sending out undercover inspectors, and from the early 1930s introduced its famous star ratings.

Michelin says it issues up to three stars based on the quality of the ingredients used; mastery of flavor and cooking techniques; the personality of the chef in his cuisine; value for money; and consistency between visits.

One star indicates “High-quality cooking, worth a stop”; two stars is for “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”; and three rates “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”.

Of about 20,000 international restaurants listed, only around 130 have attained the highest distinction.

In 2021, the Guide was criticized for keeping its selection in France going, despite the fact that restaurants were closed due to the Covid pandemic. Its competitors had decided to cancel their awards.

– Michelin goes global –

In 2005, the Michelin Guide branched out of Europe with a New York guide, followed in 2007 by editions for San Francisco then Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

It moved to Asia with a Tokyo version in 2008 when 90,000 copies, in English and Japanese, flew off the shelves in 48 hours.

Michelin published its first Shanghai guide in 2016 and today there are versions for several Asian cities, with Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo also covered.

Having long been criticized as biased towards formal dining, the guide in 2016 awarded a star to a Singapore street food outlet known for a braised chicken dish.

A famed Tokyo sushi restaurant, where Barack Obama is said to have enjoyed the best sushi of his life, was meanwhile dropped in 2019 after it stopped accepting reservations from the general public.

– A lot of pressure –

A handful of French restaurateurs have relinquished their Michelin status because of the stress of being judged by its inspectors, including Joel Robuchon (1996), Alain Senderens (2005), Olivier Roellinger (2008) and Sebastien Bras (2017).

The suicide in 2003 of three-star chef Bernard Loiseau was linked, among other reasons, to hints that his restaurant was about to lose its three stars.

Star Swiss chef Benoit Violier took his life in 2016, a day ahead of the release of the Michelin Guide, although his restaurant maintained its three-star rating.

The guide was taken to court for the first time in 2019 when celebrity chef Marc Veyrat sued it for stripping one of his restaurants of a third star and suggesting — wrongly, he insists — that he had used cheddar cheese in a souffle.

His lawsuit was rejected.

 

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