Mark of Excellence: The History and Legacy of the Michelin Star
The most coveted of laurels for chefs and restaurants alike, the Michelin Star is a mark of excellence recognised world-over. The hallmark for fine dining, when restaurants are awarded one Michelin star, it is a sign that the chef is one who has succeeded at the highest level. Two stars, and the restaurant is probably a hotspot for spotting the rich and the famous. Three, and it is likely you would have to wait months for a reservation, no matter how rich and famous you happen to be.
Gordon Ramsay, everyone’s favourite, foul-mouthed celebrity chef, famously was moved to tears at his New York-based restaurant, The London, being stripped of its two Michelin stars. So, what is about the Stars that can move a grown man, especially one as reputably cold-hearted as Ramsey, to tears?
Tyres and Tastes
French chef Paul Bocuse, a pioneer of the pathbreaking culinary movement known as nouvelle cuisine, once said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.”
While that statement may still hold true in the 21st century, the origins of the Michelin Star were humble, to say the very least. At the turn of the century, the Michelin brothers, Andre and Edouard inherited their grandfather’s failing manufacturing business, and set out on a mission to revive it. Founding their very own tyre company in the quaint countryside of the French city of Clermont-Ferrand, the brothers would soon put the small settlement of about 145,000 people on the map- or, shall we say, the guide?
The Michelin company began producing its now-famous guides in the year 1900, hoping to boost the demand for the automobile industry, and subsequently, their tyres. At the time, though bicycles were a common sight, there were only 300 cars in France- a number nowhere close to the demand required for the brothers’ business to be profitable. The first edition of the Michelin Guide ever to be produced numbered at a total of 35,000 copies, all of which were handed out to local and passing motorists for free. Each individual guide included maps, instructions on changing tyres, and a list of gas stations, mechanics, hotels and restaurants along France’s most traversed routes.
Using their incredible aptitude for innovation, the brothers had their first major success with a patent for the removable pneumatic tyre, which was road-tested at the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race of 1891. From there, the brothers turned their attention to the development of the automobile tyre- the first tyre in all of history that was able to withstand speeds over 100kmph, along with the first removable rim. In the year 1929, the brothers graduated from the road to the rail, beginning development on rubber tyres for trains. The first rubber-tyred Micheline locomotives first chugged their way along rail tracks in the year 1931.
As the brothers’ business grew, so did the guide. With tyre production and management of the company demanding their attention, the two young entrepreneurs could no longer manage the curation of the guide, and so, decided to set up a team of inspectors whose job it was to visit and rate restaurants anonymously, on a 3-category basis. This system of rating is still in place today, and as an homage to its roots in the automotive industry, was referred to as the Michelin Stars, with 3 stars signifying ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’, 2 stars being ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’ and 1 star being allocated to those which represented ‘a very good restaurant in its category’.
Roadblocks and Legacies
The outbreak of war in 1914 came as a roadblock to production, but by 1920 the guide was back on track. While the start of the second world war forced the guide into hiatus once again, it quickly regained popularity in America late in 1939 for containing maps that were useful to the Allied Forces. However, during these turbulent times, food shortages abounded, and throughout the restaurants of Europe, food quality and quantity took a beating, and the Michelin star rating was reduced to a 2-star system to account for the sudden shift.
In 1955, Michelin introduced a new rating system that acknowledged restaurants that served quality cuisine at pocket-friendly prices, known as the Bib Gourmand- highlighting dining opportunities reflective of economic standards, customised by region and cost of living. This new addition to the system opened the guide up to a previously neglected audience of devout food-enthusiasts, giving them the chance to dine on quality fare without breaking the bank. The guide’s other ratings now include symbols that qualify certain establishments with great views or those that serve cocktails and alcoholic beverages of a certain standard.
Although solidifying its status world-over through its operations in Europe, the guide didn’t take hold in America until 2005 and was concentrated on fine dining establishments and experiences in New York. As it stands today, the Guide is only limited to a few US cities, namely Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, with the state of California being included after the fact. Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Macau were only added to the Guide between 2007-2008. Today, the Guide covers 23 countries, with 14 editions sold in 90 countries around the world.
Though the Guide hasn’t made its way to India yet, there are a number of Indian chefs who have received the honour of a Michelin Star, including Vineet Bhatia of Zaika, Atul Kocchar of Tamarind, Manjunath Mural of The Song of India. A number of Indian restaurants from around the world have also received the honour, including Benares in London, Tulsi in New York and The Golden Peacock in Macau.
Today, the word ‘Michelin’ is synonymous with both the automotive industry, as well as that of fine dining and travel- with superior quality and character being the common denominator. As Michelin Star chef Jay Pendse of Bodegon Alejandro (San Sebastian, Spain), Villa Maiella (Abruzzo region, Italy), and Locanda Severino (Naples) puts it, “Skills can be taught. Character, you either have, or don’t.”
The legacy of the Michelin Star is one that has outlasted generations, wars and industrial revolutions, and remains to this day, the hallmark of fine dining and quality cuisine.
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