This season’s Top Chef is acknowledged by bloggers and Padma alike as having its most sophisticated group of “cheftestants” yet. The proof: Among the many awards the chefs have won, one cheftestant has already received three Michelin stars. But what does it mean to “have a star”? And where does the Michelin rating system come from?
In 1900, brothers André and Edouard Michelin, who sold tires for a living, had an idea to promote car travel in France. They began producing a pamphlet for French tourists, and the guide, which bore their name, covered the locations of garages and gas stations, tips on how to change a tire, and listings of where to eat and stay while on the road in France. For two decades, the brothers distributed their booklet for free, and a decade after that they began to list not just tourist locations but to rate the locations: one star for “good,” two stars for “excellent,” and three stars for “exceptional.” More than 100 years later, their guide has expanded to cover the world over and has become the standard in restaurant reviews (their tire empire hasn’t done so badly, either).
Aside from the meaning of the stars, here are four things to know to understand the Michelin rating system better:
1. There is more than one Michelin guide. There are, in fact, many Michelin guides: the Red Guide, the Green Guide, and a slew of newer non-colored guides. The Red Guide, which originally had a blue cover but has been red since 1931, has the most restaurant listings of any restaurant guide of its kind (such as Gault Millau or Zagat). Historically, the Red Guide does not review restaurants with words, but rather with a complex system of symbols to describe an establishment as concisely and universally as possible. For example, a symbol of grapes denotes an interesting wine list, while a symbol of coins means the restaurant offers “bang for buck.” The face of Bib (or Bibendum, the Michelin Man) signifies budget dining, and other symbols are used to signify such features as a terrific view from the dining room. Recently, Michelin has started offering short summaries—two to three lines of description written in the language of the country the guide represents.
The other Michelin guide is the Green Guide. The Green Guide has historically been for individual regions of France and has expanded to include areas outside France, as well. While the Red Guide is primarily a restaurant guide, the Green Guide is more a travel guide, listing and describing local sites of interest and other travel-related locations such as hotels and tourist attractions. Both guides employ the three-star system of ranking, with three stars meaning “worth the trip,” two stars meaning “worth a detour,” and one star meaning merely “interesting.” Other Michelin guides include Guide Voyageur Pratique, the guide for independent travel; Guide Gourmand, the guide for budget dining establishments; and Guide Coup de Cœur, the guide for “hotels of character.”
2. You don’t have to have a star to be listed in the guide. The Red Guide is not limited to Michelin-starred restaurants. In fact, aside from the star ratings and the complex symbols, the Red Guide resembles any other restaurant guide. Forks and knives are used as the rating throughout the guide, and all restaurants in the guide receive a fork-and-knife rating. One fork and knife means that the restaurant is “quite comfortable,” while five forks and knives indicate that the restaurant is “luxurious.” Red forks and knives signify that the restaurant is not only comfortable, but “pleasant,” as well.
3. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. As of 2008, Michelin had published guides all over the world, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Ireland. Of all the cities Michelin covers, though, Tokyo stands above the rest with a whopping 227 stars. Michelin awarded 128 Tokyo restaurants with one star, 36 restaurants with two stars, and nine restaurants with three stars. For reference, New York City has less than one-third Tokyo’s number of stars, and Paris has less than half. So why are all the great restaurants in Japan? Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. To put things in perspective, Tokyo has more than 160,000 restaurants, while New York City has at least 25,000 restaurants and Paris has a mere 13,000 restaurants.
4. Michelin stars can be a matter of life or death. Michelin stars have been known to make or break careers and have come to represent a standard that many chefs and restaurateurs find impossible to meet. For this reason, in 1999 London-based chef Nico Ladenis “returned” his three Michelin stars, saying, “I have now reached the age of 65 and like an old elephant with its nose in the air, my sense of smell tells me that fashion, people, expectations, and restaurants are undergoing convulsive changes.” Ladenis thought the Michelin system of ratings had become dated, and so chose not to participate in the system. But others have not found it in themselves to reject the establishment. On February 24, 2003, chef Bernard Loiseau of La Côte d’Or committed suicide after hearing rumors that Michelin was going to remove one of his restaurant’s three stars. The Gault Millau guide had downrated the restaurant that year, and Loiseau was feeling the pressure. He apparently told a friend, “If I lose a star, I’ll kill myself.”
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Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.