What is the hallmark of fine dining? Recognised all over the world, a Michelin star is the highest accolade in the culinary world and a mark of excellence, where chefs and restaurants dream of achieving one. But how did this coveted accolade come into existence?
The company dates back to 1889. The Michelin brothers were making tyres for horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. With the booming growth in motor vehicle tyres, the company grew unhindered. To encourage drivers and riders to take the road and explore places while driving, the company published several guides to restaurants and places to visit along with a series of roadmaps.
The first Michelin Red Guide was published by André and Édouard Michelin in 1900 in France and is owned by the Michelin tyre company. The Guide was a pocket-sized compilation of French towns, with lodgings and food options.
Aimed at promoting tourism by car, the guide was used to indicate if the place was excellent, ordinary and other criteria — something that has become a trademark of the Michelin guide. Soon, the idea boomed and today, restaurants work extremely hard to get a Michelin star recognition.
(Main and feature image credit: lasse bergqvist/ @lasse_bergqvist/ Unsplash)
About Michelin judges and how restaurants can earn a Michelin star
Who are Michelin inspectors?
Before coming to the criteria and what it takes to become a Michelin starred restaurant, it is important to know about the experts who judge exceptional cuisine, excellent cooking techniques, food and dining experiences.
The coveted and prized accolade is conferred on restaurants when ‘anonymous’ Michelin inspectors visit the establishment and review its various aspects, including food quality, cooking expertise, flavours and consistency.
A Michelin inspector has a keen eye for detail and a palate that is trained to be diverse for sampling a variety of dishes and cuisines. Sounds like quite a dream job? Well, there’s more to it. Michelin inspectors have to travel three out of four weeks a month and have practically all meals at restaurants and try as many dishes as possible by the chef. They need to do a thorough overall assessment — visit the establishment several times a year, during lunch and dinner, as well as during weekdays and weekends. Once they have eaten many times at a restaurant and are sure of the consistency, only then the restaurant is awarded one or more Michelin stars.
Being anonymous is an important aspect of this whole procedure. If an establishment finds out about an inspector’s visit, the inspector would immediately cancel their reservation and have a colleague take their place at some other time.
How do establishments become Michelin starred restaurants?
Immense dedication and consistent excellence are needed to achieve a Michelin star. Though the grading system and selection criteria remain secret, consistency plays a major role. According to the Michelin Guide, one star denotes “a very good restaurant in its category”, two stars mean “excellent cooking, worth a detour” and the highest accolade of three stars signifies “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”.
In 2018, at the Michelin Guide Singapore Trade Seminar, chefs and reviewers discussed five assessment criteria that international Michelin inspectors adhere to while rating fine-dining establishments.
First, using quality products is essential. This doesn’t mean it has to be locally grown ingredients or luxe products like foie gras. However, chefs and restaurants must walk the extra mile to source the best and premium quality ingredients to make the dishes.
Secondly, having high-quality cooking techniques and an understanding of distinct flavours is a must. Just incorporating too many fancy ingredients alone will not make it. Chef Alvin Leung of the three Michelin star restaurant Bo Innovation said, “There has to be a balance in showcasing the ingredients, but one needs to be practical and ensure that business can remain sustainable. If you use too many luxury ingredients, you are only featuring luxury.”
Third, the chef’s personality goes a long way in defining the cuisine’s value. Bringing his or her own self to the dish and expressing the culture and heritage of the establishment is an essential factor that defines the personality of food at Michelin star restaurants.
Interestingly, Michelin stars are awarded to a restaurant and not to individual chefs. Therefore, even if the head chef leaves and the place continues to serve excellent food, then the Michelin star is retained by the restaurant.
Consequently, a chef who has won Michelin stars for a restaurant can go on to work for other establishments and earn stars for them as well. Similarly, two chefs working at one restaurant can also bring two individual Michelin stars for that place.
Next, good food that gives value for money is crucial for a dining experience. According to Yeo See Kiat of Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomy association, the value comes with the ‘wow’ factor.
What sets apart Michelin star restaurants from other eateries is the post-dining satisfaction and the memorable experience. This is both in terms of customer service and the food. The ambience and food service may not hold much value nor the setting of a formal restaurant, but the dining experience is what sets the tone.
Finally and most importantly, consistency of food. This point cannot be stressed enough. The journey from getting one Michelin star to entering the elite club of three Michelin star restaurants lies in the consistent service and quality. This is why inspectors visit an eatery multiple times to ensure these parameters.
Other Michelin Star awards
Michelin also has other highly noted recognitions that it confers upon restaurants. The Bib Gourmand is one such award that started in 1997 and is given to “good quality, good value restaurants,” reads the Michelin Guide. The website also says, “The price limit for ‘Bib’ consideration varies from country to country, depending on the cost of living.” Eateries like Hunan Bistro in New York, US, and Restaurant ñ in The Hague have been honoured with this award.
Another is the Michelin Plate. The website says, “First introduced in the 2016 edition of the Michelin Guide Paris, the Michelin Plate, or L’assiette in French, represents ‘Fresh ingredients, carefully prepared; a good meal’.”
Meanwhile, the Michelin Green Star, introduced in 2020, honours those restaurants that not only serve delicious gourmet meals but are also accountable for their ethical and environmentally sustainable practices. Fine dining with committed ecological responsibilities characterises these restaurants.
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Kuala Lumpur.