Samui Wining & Dining
Star Studded

The mystery behind Michelin Stars is revealed.

 

10Few things can bring the mighty, foul-mouthed, egotistical, yet brilliant Gordon Ramsay to tears. Yet recently, this superstar chef explained on live TV, that this was his reaction upon hearing that his New York restaurant had been stripped of its two Michelin Stars.

      The term ‘Michelin Star’ is a hallmark of fine dining quality, and restaurants around the world boast their Michelin Star status. The stars belong to the restaurant however, so Gordon’s New York restaurant being stripped of its stars doesn’t mean the chef lost his touch in the kitchen. It just shows that he’s spread himself a little too thin between TV series and a plethora of restaurants around the world – Gordon apparently only popped into the restaurant once every few months. The guide’s explanation for the loss of stars was that the food was ‘erratic’, which is often the case when a chef is seldom at his restaurant. Ramsay explained that losing the stars was like ‘losing a girlfriend.’ Of course, the hilarious part of all this is that this prestigious restaurant rating comes from a car tyre company. Yes, the same Michelin that sells tyres also hands out restaurant ratings

      Michelin actually have a long history of reviewing restaurants. In 1900, the Michelin tyre company launched its first guidebook to encourage road tripping in France. And in 1926, it started sending out anonymous restaurant reviewers to try restaurants. To this day, Michelin relies entirely on its full-time staff of anonymous restaurant reviewers – who generally are very passionate about food, have a good eye for detail, and have a great palate. The guide expects their reviewers to be ‘chameleons’ who can blend in with all of their surroundings, to appear as if they are ordinary customers. Each time a reviewer goes to a restaurant, they compose a thorough report about their experience, and then all of the reviewers get together to discuss and decide on which restaurants will be awarded the stars.

      The restaurants chosen for the Michelin Guides are all highly recommended, but earning a star is seen as one of the highest honours in the industry. Evaluations involve repeated test meals to assess the quality and reliability of the experience.

     So how are the establishments judged, and what do the stars mean? Well, Michelin awards zero to three stars on the basis of the anonymous reviews. The reviewers concentrate on the quality, mastery of technique, personality and consistency of the food in making these reviews. They don’t look at interior décor, table setting, or service quality in awarding stars, though the guide shows forks and spoons, which describes how fancy or casual a restaurant may be.

      

The stars are awarded as follows:

• One star: A good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. • Two stars: A restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skilfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality.

• Three stars: A restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.

 

         Along with the star rating, the Michelin Guide provides a written description of each location with a variety of symbols to give further insight into an establishment. Ambiance, specialties, and wine are just a few of the factors considered. Comfort is also rated by way of one to five forks and spoons for a restaurant.

         Michelin inspectors visit each premises once every 18 months, unless it’s moving up or down the ranks. A one-star candidate will receive four visits, while a two-star restaurant receives ten visits before becoming a three-star establishment. Inspectors travel over from Europe to ensure consistency; visits take place anonymously and Michelin pays the bills. Inspectors are on the road three weeks out of four, staying in a different hotel every night and eating lunch and dinner at a different restaurant every day – someone has to do it! These stars are coveted and deemed prestigious, because the vast majority of restaurants receive no stars at all. For example, the Michelin Guide to Chicago 2014 includes almost 500 restaurants, yet only one restaurant received three stars; four received two stars; and 20 received one star.

         Over the past few years, many have criticised the guides as being biased towards French cuisine with regards to style and technique, or towards a snobby, formal dining style, rather than a casual atmosphere.

         So do the stars really matter? Well, they do, at least to some chefs. Marco Pierre White dedicated his early career to winning three Michelin stars. Once he had them in the bag in 1995, at the age of 33 (the youngest Briton to do so), he lost interest in cooking for 18 hours a day. "I felt as though I'd finished my race," he wrote in his autobiography. "Boxers win heavyweight championships of the world and lose hunger, so to speak. Why should chefs be any different?"

         Some chefs spend much of their time seeking to achieve one, two or three stars, and some dedicate their life to this goal. Michelin was in fact largely blamed in the media for the death of prominent French chef, Bernard Loiseau, in 2003. Loiseau was overheard saying that he would kill himself if he ever lost his three Michelin Stars, and when rumours circulated that his standard was going down, he couldn’t face the pressure and took his own life rather than suffer the ‘shame’ of losing his prized stars.

         So taking this all into account, are Michelin Stars still relevant? Yes … and no, would be the answer to that. On the ‘for’ side, Michelin is the only international system for testing and grading haute cuisine, and its team of 70 European inspectors has unrivalled experience. Chefs and restaurateurs consider the guide the most important for building a reputation and attracting customers.

         Those that say ‘no’ give the reasons as being that Michelin is too old-fashioned and restrictive, because it’s largely based on formal French cooking. They argue too, that chefs pander to the Michelin inspectors' preferences by cooking over-elaborate, fussy food, and that inspectors favour formal, heavy dining rooms rather than funky or fun establishments.

         Whatever your take on it, no one can argue the bizarreness of the fact that a tyre company has such clout in the world of fine dining.

         

Rosanne Turner


 


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