THE MICHELIN GUIDE: HISTORY, LIGHTS, AND SHADOWS
The Michelin guide is the most important gastronomic guide in the world. Alone it can generate huge repercussions. And yet there are shadows on the shining guide
In 1920 Andre Michelin entered a garage, one of those early-century brick factories, with squared-glass windows, greasy and not very bright. He is no longer proud when he sees his tyres exposed, now he is used to it. He is indignant, however, when he sees his beloved guide used to hold a work table.
“People – it will be said that day – only respect what they pay.” Since then, what is the most important culinary guide in the world, the Michelin Guide, will not be free anymore.
The birth of the Michelin guide: in 1900
Nine years after the birth of the Michelin tyre company, the brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin began to think about publishing a breviary that could guide the first heroic travelers. They believe, of course, also to cyclists (it is 1898) but in the first edition, which will be presented during the universal exhibition, the Michelin guide is mainly addressed to motorists.
It is not yet a bon-viveur handbook. There are mainly indications on the routes to follow and useful numbers such as pharmacies, tire dealers, petrol pumps, mechanics and hotels. No restaurants included at the beginning.
Furthermore, it was free, and the first editions had a printing of 35,000 copies. The internationalization came in 1904, when the ‘red guide’ (which until 1931 was blue) arrived in Belgium, then landed in Britain in 1911. In 1920, however, marketing began thanks to the legendary intuition of Andre Michelin.
Inspectors and evaluation criteria
The famous evaluation system of the Michelin guide began in 1926. In this period the company invested in a group of anonymous inspectors, and since then the requirements and the votes of the red guide have remained unchanged
• 1 star means “Excellent restaurant in its category. Worth a stop. “
• 2 stars mean Excellent; deserves a detour from the journey.”
• 3 stars mean “Exceptional cuisine; it deserves a special trip.”
The criteria with which the experts evaluate the restaurants, even returning more than once and always in complete anonymity are 5:
• quality of raw materials
• originality and personality of the chef in the proposed dishes
• mastery of techniques
• the price ratio
• continuity over time
As you can see, the care of the environment and the service are considered separately or not included in the evaluations.
The critics received in recent years
In recent years, after a report on it by the Italian TV program Report, there have been some controversies regarding the evaluation methods used by the guide’s critics. According to Report, there are only 80 inspectors who have to evaluate all European restaurants (an operation that is obviously impossible to do). In fact, the confirmation of the star at the Mattias chalet in Livigno in Michelin 2016 caused a sensation as the chef Mattias Peri was already deceased. Besides, doubts have been raised about the real anonymity of the red gourmets as well as the evaluation methods.
However, the guide does not only have the stars as a method of evaluation. The symbols are many, and the “bib gourmand” indicates the best places with reasonable prices.
Fun fact: Michelin as a guide for soldiers in World War II
In 1944, during the war, the Michelin Guide was published in Washington with detailed city maps of French cities. This was before the D-Day. Today, they are clearly relics: many of them are in the USA, where they were brought back by the soldiers, others were destroyed by the bombings.
Today’s most awarded countries
The red guide is published throughout Europe and includes the restaurants of the major Japanese and American cities. Leading by the number of stars is Japan, France follows and then the USA. The Asian country also dominates thanks to its cities (there are 6 Japanese cities in the first 10 places), with Tokyo that, in the 2018 edition, could boast 314 stars (12 restaurants with three stars, 56 with two, 166 with one). We can find then Paris with 141 stars, Kyoto and Osaka. New York is fifth.
The Guide in Italy
In Italy, Michelin arrived in 1956, and the first edition included a part of the Peninsula that goes from the Alps to Siena. The following year, for 1500 lire, the red guide ends up covering the entire country while in 1959 the first stars appear in a guide with less description compared to the today’s edition (there were only symbols). It will take ten years, however, to see the 2 stars in an Italian restaurant. 30, finally, will be the years between the appearance of the guide and the first three-star Italian restaurant. Gualtiero Marchesi with his Bonvesin de La Riva will get the best recognition.
In the 2019 edition presented a month ago, there are 367 assigned stars in Italy: 10 three stars (Uliassi has been added to the previous 9 three-star chefs), 39 two stars (remained unchanged compared to 2018), 318 one star (29 more).
The weight of the stars: refusal and suicide cases
The high pace of work in the kitchen, especially for those who must also maintain levels of excellence in something that is repeated every day for years has often led several operators to exasperation. The chef of the restaurant voted the best in the world, Benoit Voilier, committed suicide for stress and depression. The suicide of Bernard Loiseau is quite different: another guide, the Gault Millau, had already downgraded him by three points (from 20/20 he went to 17/20). He feared the loss of one of his 3 stars and, apparently, a significant factor in the great stress factor, he decided to take his life in February 2003 – to confirm the link between the death of the great chef and the pressure due to the stars was his wife.
Someone, fortunately, stopped before the extreme gesture. This is the case of Sebastien Bras, who has returned his 3 stars: too much pressure for him as well.
But how much is a star worth?
The JFC of Faenza has done a research to evaluate the revenues of a Michelin star in Italy.
According to the study, the first star determines an increase in turnover of 53.2%. The second and third stars increase it by 18.7% and 25.6%, respectively.
Above all, however, a starred restaurant generates an influx into the territory that brings an average of 2770 more visitors.
The takings of restaurateurs, then, rise not so much for the business itself but for the appearances and the courses that the stars generate. In general, starred chefs can hold from a minimum of 10 to a maximum of 40 annual events (from TV shows to banquets, from workshops to classes, etc.). The sacred monsters, only from this type of activity, can get up to 600,000 euros per year.
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)