In 1900, the renowned French tire manufacturer Michelin introduced the Michelin Guide, a dining bible that embarked on its star-studded journey about a century ago. It has become the most recognised mark of quality a restaurant can get and yet no one knows who the inspectors are that give away the coveted prize.
Gwendal Poullennec, the Michelin Guide’s international director, fondly recalls the inception, “The founding brothers, frères Michelin, had this brilliant idea to have a guide to help the people travel.”
While Michelin still excels in the tire business, Poullennec is quick to clarify that the individuals crafting tires are not the same as the discreet, professional restaurant inspectors who dine incognito.
In the present day, these undercover inspectors, hailing from international teams, diligently evaluate restaurants across the globe. The Michelin Guide covers various U.S. cities, including Washington, California, New York, Chicago, and, as of the previous year, Florida.
How to Michelin Stars Work?
Michelin Stars, awarded on a scale from one to three, are reserved for the world’s crème de la crème dining establishments. Earning one star means being deemed “a very good restaurant in its category,” while two stars signify “excellent cooking, worth a detour.” The coveted three stars are reserved for restaurants offering “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”
Many enthusiasts plan entire vacations around visiting Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s no wonder that chefs aspire to attain these accolades; a single Michelin Star can work wonders for a restaurant’s reputation, while three solidify its status among the world’s finest.
Beyond stars, Michelin also acknowledges restaurants on the rise, indicating the potential for star status or additional stars for those already adorned. This signals a commitment to continual improvement.
Restaurants proudly flaunt their Michelin stars, a prestigious honour held by approximately 140 three-star establishments worldwide. Yet, the inspectors responsible for these accolades remain utterly anonymous.
Who are the inspectors?
One inspector, speaking anonymously to the American publication Sunday Morning, disclosed his background: hotel dining experience, a culinary school degree, and two decades as a Michelin inspector. Remarkably, he has never been exposed as an inspector but admits to occasionally encountering past colleagues in restaurants, where he poses as a “consultant.”
In this era, preserving anonymity often requires advanced espionage tactics. “We use aliases; we frequently change them,” he revealed. “We employ fictitious contact details.”
Gwendal Poullennec emphasized the Michelin Guide’s focus: “”The star is only about the quality of the food; it’s not about the service and the setting.”
He said Michelin inspectors rate food based on specific criteria: “The quality of the products, the mastery of cooking techniques, the harmony and balance in flavours, the personality of the chef as expressed on the plate, and last but not least, the consistency both over time and throughout the menu as a whole.”
The hidden sixth criteria
Despite what Poullennec says, there is a sixth criteria, and it’s one that can encompass many other aspects of the restaurant itself. At an international convention in Singapore, Michael Ellis, international director of MICHELIN Guides, admitted that the organisation also includes what he called, “Value for money”.
Yeo See Kiat of Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomy association and fellow conference panelist with Ellis, defined this category more generally as meaning that the guest, “comes out of a restaurant with a memorable experience.”
“Value is having a wow factor. It should include a total experience, from the attentiveness of the service staff and ambience to food,” said Yeo. This aspect can include the restaurant’s unique story, and essential, whether or not the meal as a whole will be a positive memory long into the future.
During restaurant reviews, inspectors may operate singly or in larger teams. “However, it’s never a one-person show when it comes to Michelin Guide decisions and recommendations,” Poullennec asserted, underscoring the need for quality and worldwide consistency in their evaluations.
And the effort is clearly worth it. Studies have shown that receiving a Michelin star can alter a business in several ways. Upon receiving one star, restaurants usually increase their activity up to 20% on average, 40% more when receiving two stars and 100% when receiving 3 stars. Moreover, restaurants with one Michelin star generally increase their prices by 14.8%, 55.1% when having two stars and 80.2% when having three stars meaning these extra visitors are also significantly more profitable.