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seeing red

The Michelin Guide enters its second century, enriching some restaurants, ruining others and leaving controversy in its wake.

John Mariani
Posted: August 14, 2000

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seeing red

The Michelin Guide enters its second century, enriching some restaurants, ruining others and leaving controversy in its wake.

By John Mariani

The Michelin red guide -- the most famous and most powerful restaurant guide in the world -- celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Its power to make a restaurant's fame and fortune -- or to ruin a chef's reputation -- remains indisputable. But some critics argue that its secretive approach hides increasingly inconsistent standards that threaten to undermine its once unassailable position as the definitive authority on fine dining.

First published in France in 1900 as a promotional tool to sell Michelin tires to the chauffeurs of the wealthy, the guide now covers restaurants and hotels in 12 European countries. Worldwide sales have reached 1.5 million copies per year, and it's the best-selling book in France next to the Bible; not surprising, perhaps, in a country where food is its own religion.

Like the Bible's, the judgments of the Michelin guide are inscrutable and omnipotent. Its rating system is the epitome of simplicity: one star (the French call them macarons) denotes "a very good restaurant in its category"; two stars, "excellent cooking, worth a detour"; and three stars, the ultimate accolade, "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." It condemns only by omission, erasing a star from one restaurant, completely ignoring another.

The secretive nature of just how Michelin rates its restaurants and awards stars has always given the guide a certain mystique. Michelin will not even confirm how many inspectors they have on the job (rumored to be about 20 in France alone). How they are trained for the job is also a mystery. One former inspector in London told me his training consisted of visiting several restaurants with a veteran French inspector, but he was never taken to any at the three-star level.

"To Publish our criteria would be contrary to our philosophy. In effect, we do not wish to close in the professionals of the tabe in a rigid iron collar that would certainly stifle thier liberty or creation and flowering."

-- Bernard Naegellen of Michelin

Inspectors are full-time employees, who eat their way through the cities and countryside, often 14 times a week, armed with a notebook and a strong digestion. They usually eat alone, ordering at least a three-course meal and a modest bottle of wine. They always pay their bill. They may eat at a restaurant several times before filing their report, and, if the report is promising, several other inspectors -- unknown to the first -- will pay additional visits; though the final number of visits is also kept secret.

After a meal, the inspector may identify himself to the management and do a "technical inspection" -- a tour of the premises, wine cellar and bathrooms. He will give no hint of what his findings may be. To keep restaurateurs from being alerted to his presence in their area, an inspector is relocated every year, not to return to that region for another eight years. Starred restaurants in each country covered by the guides are visited several times every year, but others might not be visited for periods of 18 to 24 months. Michelin also factors in comments from their readers; the guide receives 100,000 letters each year.

After the annual ratings appear each spring, restaurateurs and chefs may request an audience with Michelin's director, Bernard Naegellen, a former inspector who took over in 1985.

For many, including most of the French chefs I spoke with, Michelin's draconian rating system and immutable facade of respectability are as wholly admirable as the efforts of the Académie Française to keep French culture as pure as possible. For Michelin there is only "perfection" or "near perfection."

The Michelin Guide was first published in France in 1900 as promotional tool to sell tires.

Others, however, see the Michelin method as chauvinistic -- a charge difficult to dispute when the overwhelming majority of starred restaurants serve French cuisine, even those establishments outside France. Of the 25 starred restaurants in London in this year's guide (more than any other city outside of Paris), at least 20 are resolutely French. The 2000 Spain and Portugal volume does list more than 130 tapas bars, and the English guide a good number of pubs as well as Indian and Pakistani restaurants -- but none are starred.

Some critics feel that Michelin is too soft on venerable older restaurants whose best days are behind them, taking years to retire their stars. Ironically, others feel that Michelin now leaps to judgment too quickly.

No one has ever criticized Michelin for backing away from the expensive and exhausting mission it has set for itself. According to Gayle Sparks, vice president of Michelin Travel Publications, North America: "Michelin publishes these books to make money, not to lose it, though there is of course a strong promotional value for the tire company." Still, it's difficult to know if the guides do make money, because the figures are never published. Cost is certainly the factor that has long kept Michelin from rating restaurants in America.

"We're always looking to do a red U.S. guide," says Sparks (there already are green travel guides published), "but the financial investment would obviously be huge. We do three years worth of inspections and mock volumes before we go into publication, and we seriously looked into the idea back in 1985 and found the costs just out of sync with what we needed to do."

The same costs that make an American red guide prohibitive are daunting diners all over the world. Even Michelin must be aghast at how their three-star ratings have pushed up the prices in France, where one can easily spend $250 per person for a meal, and how the award of three stars can force a restaurateur into debt just to maintain them. But Michelin's is not to reason why; theirs is but to eat and eat and eat, then tell the world that perfection, at least at the table, is sometimes -- however rarely -- attainable in this world.

John Mariani's new book is Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (LebharÐFriedman Books).

For the complete article, please see the August 31, 2000 issue of Wine Spectator magazine, p. 98.

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