Michelin Star Restaurants

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Podcast Transcript

In 1889, two brothers, Andre and Edouard Michelin, started a company that made the world’s first removable pneumatic tires. 

Today, their names are synonymous with fine dining around the world. 

If you wonder what rubber tires have to do with the world’s greatest restaurants, I assure you it all makes perfect sense, even if the story isn’t perfectly linear. 

Learn more about the Michelin Star Resturants, how they came to be, and how they are awarded on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.  

This episode is sponsored by Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon.

I want to introduce you to a company that goes back decades and a tradition that goes back even further. 

Heaven Hill Distillery might be America’s most quintessential bourbon distillery. Established in 1935, after the end of prohibition, the distillery was established by the Shapira family and has remained a family-owned distillery to this day.

They are still located in the heart of the bourbon trail in Bardstown, Kentucky. 

Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon is part of a tradition that goes back to the 19th century. 

In 1897, Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act, which set forth strict rules for any bourbon labeled bottled-in-bond. At the time, there were no rules about what could be called bourbon or how it was made. 

The law stipulated that anything labeled Bottled-in-Bond had to be the product of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery. Moreover, it has to be aged for four years in charred white oak barrels. 

Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon goes beyond the stringent requirements of the law by aging its bourbon for seven years, not four. 

The end result is Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond, a gold medal-winning bourbon that truly stands out. I recently had the chance to try Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond, and I can attest to its exceptional aromas, with hints of caramel and vanilla intertwining with its oakiness, which provide a well-rounded flavor profile. Taking a sip is akin to experiencing a piece of bourbon history firsthand.

It’s something you can enjoy at home with friends or even at a Michelin Star restaurant. 

Available nationally, look for a bottle at your local store. Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond. 

Heaven Hill reminds you to Think Wisely. Drink Wisely.

Before I get into the details of how the most prestigious awards in fine dining are awarded, I first have to explain how a tire company got into the business of reviewing restaurants. 

As I mentioned in the introduction, the Michelin Stars originated with the Michelin Tire Company. 

The company was founded in 1889 by brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin, who ran a farm implement business in the town of Clermont-Ferrand, France. 

According to legend, one day, a cyclist came to their factory with a pneumatic tire that needed to be repaired. Pneumatic tires are just tires that are filled with pressurized air. 

They were quite new in 1889, and when Édouard tried to fix the tire, he found that it was glued to the wheel. It took him over three hours just to remove the tire. 

He figured there had to be a better way, so he and his brother created a pneumatic tire that could be replaced and didn’t have to be permanently attached to a wheel. 

The company they founded was the Michelin Tire Company, which is still located in Clermont-Ferrand in central France and is the world’s second-largest tire company.

It wasn’t long after the establishment of the company that a new technology appeared, which dramatically increased demand for pneumatic tires: the automobile.

By the turn of the century, automobiles showed an enormous amount of potential, but there still weren’t many of them. In 1900, there were only 3,000 cars in all of France. 

In an effort to encourage more people to produce automobiles, in 1900, the company issued its very first guide to motorists. The guides included maps as well as information on automotive repair, how to change tires, where to find automotive mechanics and information on hotels and restaurants. 

The guides were a huge hit, with 35,000 printed that first year. Their success was due in no small part to the fact that they were free. 

The guide was such a hit that the brothers decided to expand the guide into other European and North African countries. In 1904, they released a guide to Belgium, and by 1910, they were also releasing guides in English and other languages. 

By 1920, automobiles had become common enough that it was no longer necessary to have sections about changing tires and automotive repair. Also, that year, supposedly, André Michelin visited a tire seller and noticed that copies of the guidebook were being used to prop up a workbench because the books were given away for free. 

In 1922, they began charging a modest amount for the guides, about the equivalent of $2.15. They removed advertising, and they changed the focus of the guild to be more focused on travel and less focused on automobiles. 

This included adding hotel listings for Paris and an expanded version of their most popular section, the restaurant reviews. 

As part of this expansion of their restaurant section, the brothers hired a team of anonymous restaurant reviewers who would secretly visit restaurants unannounced to review them. 

In 1926, the guides began to issue a star to restaurants that they thought were of high quality. 

It should be noted that the Michelin Guides didn’t invent the star system. Stars were previously awarded in other travel guides, including Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers out of England and the Baedeker Guides out of Germany. 

In 1931, the Michelin guides changed their system to award anywhere from zero to three stars, the system that they still use today. 

In 1936, they provided a bit more explanation to describe just what getting one, two, or three stars meant.

1 star indicated  “A very good restaurant in its category” (Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie) 

2 stars indicated “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (Table excellente, mérite un détour) 

And 3 stars meant “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage).

While they did award stars, it wasn’t quite the big deal that it is today. That was because they only issued guides for a small number of countries at this time.

Nonetheless, the reputation of the Michelin stars began to grow. Getting one or more stars for your restaurant was considered to be a huge honor. 

Much of this was due to the very rigorous process that Michelin used to review its restaurants. More on that in a bit….

During the war, Michelin suspended the publication of their guidebooks but was requested to republish the 1939 book by the Allies in 1944 because they offered the best and most current maps available for France. 

When they resumed publication after the war, they put a limit of two stars on what they would give a restaurant due to lingering wartime shortages. 

Over the years, the number of locations covered by the Michelin guides expanded.  In 1956, they issued their first guide to Italy,  where they didn’t award any stars to any restaurant in the entire country. 

In 1974, they once again published a guide for Great Britain, which they hadn’t done since the 1930s. 

Over the last several decades, the Michelin guides have expanded to multiple new markets, which means the awarding of new Michelin stars. 

In 2005, for the first time, Michelin released a guide in the United States that covered New York City. The inaugural guide reviewed over 500 restaurants in the Five Boroughs. 

In 2007, they released a guide to Tokyo, and in 2008, they added a guide for Hong Kong and Macau. 

It wasn’t until 2022 that they added guides for Canada covering Toronto and Vancouver. 

Today, Michelin Stars are the highest honors that can be given out in the world of restaurants and fine dining. They are considered to be the equivalent of an Academy Award for restaurants, and chefs will often go far out of their way to achieve coveted stars. 

But what really goes into awarding Michelin Stars? What is the process, and to what length does a restaurant have to go to earn one?

This is a subject that is both one of obsession and secrecy. 

The first thing to know is that the only way you can hope to even have a chance of getting a Michelin Star is if a restaurant is in a city for which Michelin publishes a guidebook. 

If there is no guidebook, there are no stars awarded. 

For example, there is an organization that gives awards to the best restaurants in the world each year. 

According to their latest awards, given out in 2023, the world’s number one restaurant is Central in Lima, Peru. 

By any stretch of the imagination, Central is worthy of a Michelin Star. However, it does not have any Michelin stars, simply because Michelin doesn’t publish a guidebook for Peru. 

There are probably more restaurants worthy of a Michelin star that don’t have one in the world than there are Michelin star restaurants, just because Michelin only tends to publish guidebooks for major urban areas in certain countries. 

That is why there are no Michelin star restaurants in Australia or New Zealand. They have many high-quality restaurants, but they don’t publish a guidebook for those countries. 

Having Michelin star restaurants is considered so prestigious that some destinations will provide an incentive. In 2022, Michelin published their first guidebook for Florida, largely because the Florida Tourism Board paid them a fee to do so. 

Likewise, there are technically no longer any Michelin Star restaurants in Las Vegas. Michelin last produced a guide in 2009 and the sales were so bad that they stopped publishing. However, several restaurants were given stars before they stopped publishing, and many are still in operation. 

So, assuming you have a restaurant in a city where a Michelin guide is published. What next?

Well, you don’t really have much control over the process. A reviewer will visit your restaurant unannounced and in secret. 

The secrecy of the Michelin reviewers is one of the best-kept secrets in the industry. Supposedly, even the upper management at the Michelin corporation has no clue who the reviewers are, and the reviewers don’t know each other outside of their region.

If a reviewer finds the restaurant good, then another reviewer will be sent, and possibly a few more. Stars will almost never be issued on the opinion of one person. 

What are the reviewers looking for? 

According to Michelin, there are five criteria they assess:

  1. The quality of the ingredients, 
  2. The harmony of flavors, 
  3. The mastery of techniques, 
  4. The personality of the chef as expressed through their cuisine 
  5. Consistency across the entire menu and over time.

So, technically speaking, nothing matters but the food. In fact, they have gone on record to say that the service, decor, location, or even the wine list have nothing to do with how a restaurant is evaluated. 

Yet, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the vast majority of Michelin Star restaurants are what you could call “high-end” or “fancy” restaurants. 

However, not all of them are. Michelin stars have been awarded to simple street food stalls in some countries. 

In Singapore, the Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles stand was awarded a Michelin Star, and you can buy a bowl of noodles there for under $5.

In Hong Kong, Tim Ho Wan is a Michelin Star dim sum restaurant where the cheapest item on the menu is only $1.50. 

There are many other Michelin Star restaurants where you could order a meal for about $20. 

One reason why Michelin Star restaurants are so expensive is that once you get a star, one of the first things restaurants do is raise their prices. 

Because any restaurant, in theory, can earn a Michelin Star, in 2020, Burger King actually began an ad campaign in Belgium to advocate receiving a Michelin Star. They started an online petition for Michelin to give Burger King a star for its new Master Angus burger.

Michelin actually responded to the ad campaign and indicated that they would send a reviewer to Burger King, alas, they were not awarded a star. 

One other thing that Michelin always points out is that stars are awarded to restaurants, not to chefs. 

As such, stars are not automatically revoked when a chef leaves a restaurant. 

But it also means a chef can run multiple restaurants and get multiple Michelin stars. As of the recording of this episode, the chefs with the most Michelin Stars are Gordon Ramsey with 17, Alain Ducasse with 21, and Joël Robuchon with 31. If you include all of the restaurants he has ever been associated with, including those that have closed or where Michelin Stars are not awarded, Joël Robuchon has gotten 57 Michelin Stars….which is more than many countries.

I’m guessing that most people listening to this probably have not eaten at a Michelin Star restaurant. 

So, what is it like?

In the course of my travels, I’ve been able to eat at a few, usually as the guest of someone else who was paying for it, but in one notable case, I paid for it myself.

My first experience was at Picasso’s at the Beligio in Las Vegas. They were right when they started giving out Michelin Stars to Vegas restaurants. It was awarded two stars, and I went there before I set off on my around-the-world travels. 

The wine list was thicker than a phonebook. The menu consisted of nothing but two choices, each of which was a multi-course tasting menu of very small courses. 

I’m not going to lie, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life, and it was also the most expensive meal I’ve ever had in my life. It isn’t the sort of thing you do on a regular basis, but it was something that I’m glad I did at least once. 

Michelin Stars are one of the most coveted awards in all of gastronomy. They are a global symbol of quality and excellence…and they are all due to a pneumatic tire company in France that wanted to get more people to drive cars.