My son is training to be a chef and so perhaps it was not surprising that we were discussing Michelin starred restaurants. This in turn got me to thinking that there must be a story behind the famous rating system and of course there is. It goes something like this…
Round black and rubbery isn’t something you would necessarily associate with food unless you have ever been served burnt squid, but when you add the word Michelin the connection is more obvious.
The origins of the now famous Michelin Guide and its star rating system are similar obscure – the connection between fine dining and rubber tyres not immediately obvious.
Those origins can be traced back to 1900, a time when there were only a few thousand cars on the road in France. Brothers André and Édouard Michelin were looking for clever new ways to promote the sale of their tyres and decided upon the notion of a travellers’ guide – The Michelin Guide. Their thinking was that if people travelled more they would wear down their tyres and so have to buy new ones.
The original guides were given away free of charge, and contained useful information for motorists, including maps, instructions for repairing and changing tyres, and lists of car mechanics, hotels and petrol stations. In 1904 the brothers published a similar guide to Belgium and in subsequent years, guides for other European countries followed.
Not surprisingly publication was stopped during the First World War and while printing resumed after the war, the brothers were soon to review their policy of giving them away free.
Visiting a tyre merchant on one day, André Michelin saw a pile of copies being used to prop up a workbench and decided that perhaps the old adage of “Man only truly respects what he pays for” was correct after all.
The brothers decided to start charging for the guide but they took the opportunity to make some changes to it, listing restaurants and abandoning advertisements in the guide.
The popularity and indeed use of the new restaurant section encouraged the brothers to expand it and they recruited a special team of inspectors to visit and review the restaurants. These early Michelin guides were instructed to carefully maintain their anonymity ensuring the independence of the review.
In 1926 the guide awarded its first stars for fine dining but initially there was only one tier- either you got a star or you didn’t.
It wasn’t until 1931 that the hierarchy of one, two and three stars was introduced and another five years before the criteria for the different levels was published:
One star: “A very good restaurant in its category” – worth stopping (“Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”)
Two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (“Table excellente, mérite un détour”)
Three stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (“Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”).
A lovely footnote to the story is that during the Second World War publication was again suspended, but in 1944, at the request of the Allied Forces, the 1939 guide to France was specially reprinted for military use: its maps were judged the best and most up-to-date available to the invading armies. Publication of the annual guide then resumed on 16 May 1945, a week after V E Day.