‘The “Road” to the Michelin Star
The world-famous Michelin star. Restaurants crave it. Diners desire it. Chefs build a career on it. Where and how did it begin and why are they so important?
Over 120 years ago, there were fewer than 3,000 cars on the roads of France. Brothers Édouard and André Michelin were looking to increase the demand for cars and specifically tires. Four years later in 1904, and yearly thereafter, a series of Michelin Guides have been published. Nearly 35,000 copies of the first, free edition of the guide were distributed, which provided information to motorists, such as maps, tire repair, car mechanics listings, hotels, and gasoline stations throughout France. The Michelin Guide (suspended once during World War I) began being published across Europe and Northern Africa and in 1909, an English-language version of this French guide was published. Until 1920, revised editions continued to be given away for free until one day, André Michelin was visiting a vendor who was a usual purchaser of his company’s tires. He saw his famous guide on the floor being used to level a workbench. He was quoted as saying that “man only truly respects what he pays for,” and decided to charge a price for it, which ended up being around $2.15 in 1922. He and his brother decided to make a few changes, notably listing restaurants by specific categories, adding hotel listings and removing advertisements in the guide.
Recognizing the growing popularity of the restaurant section of the guide, the brothers recruited a team of inspectors to visit and review restaurants, who were always anonymous. Michelin reviewers (commonly called “inspectors”) do not identify themselves, and their meals and expenses are paid for by Michelin, never by a restaurant being reviewed. The guide has gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain a very high level of its inspectors’ anonymity. Many of the company’s top executives have never met an inspector; inspectors themselves are advised not to disclose their line of work; and, in all the years that it has been putting out the guide, Michelin has refused to allow its inspectors to speak to journalists. The inspectors write reports that are distilled. In the annual “stars meetings” at the guide’s various national offices, rankings are determined to be worthy of three stars, two stars, or one star—or no stars. The acquisition or loss of this six-leafed star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant. The explanation of stars is as follows: One Star=”A very good restaurant in its category.”; Two Stars= “Excellent cooking, worth a detour.”; Three Stars= “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”
Paul Bocuse, the renowned French culinary master and one of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s, said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.” Annually, when the guide is published, a media frenzy ensues to rival that of the Academy Awards. Michelin also awards “Rising Stars,” indicating a restaurant or their chef’s potential to qualify for a star, or an additional star.
One creative trait within the inner sanctum of the Michelin Guide is its ability to modernize its publication. Since 1955, the guide has also highlighted restaurants offering “exceptionally good food at moderate prices,” a feature now called “Bib Gourmand.” They must offer menu items priced below a maximum determined by local economic standards. In 2016, a new symbol, the Plate, was added to recognize restaurants that “simply serve good food” Also, in 2020, the Michelin Guide launched a sustainability emblem (a Green Star) to symbolize excellence in sustainable gastronomy. Most Americans may remember “Bib” in a different way. He is the nickname for the Michelin Man, which has been the company’s corporate logo for over a century.
Houston’s first Michelin-Star restaurant, Le Jardinier, is owned and part of The Bastion Collection, which also operates La Table in Galleria. Led by culinary director Alain Verzeroli and executive pastry chef Salvatore Martone, Le Jardinier opened in the summer of 2019 in New York and within short order, won a Michelin Star. This dining destination has found a Houston home in the Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts and its sister concept, the Italian eatery Cafe Leonelli opened earlier this year in the same space.
Now that we have one star, let’s see where the stars take us!