To understand the importance of the Michelin Red Guide in France, let me introduce you to Philippe, my fruit-and-vegetable man. He sells fresh homegrown produce at unbeatable prices from a roadside stand and usually throws in something free, such as a head of garlic or a few lemons. For a treat, when he is not working, Philippe gets together with a mate of his who is a talented young chef, and they go and eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant. This is his hobby and his passion, and we talk about his latest meal whenever I see him.
No one in France will be surprised that a 35-year-old farmer in Provençe spends his free time and hard-earned money this way. Good food is a religion here, and for the past century, the priest presiding at the high altar of French cuisine has been the roly-poly Michelin man. His “parents” were André and Edouard Michelin, the French brothers who invented the pneumatic tire in 1891. Struck by the vaguely human shape of two stacks of different-sized tires decorating the 1898 Lyon Universal exhibition, they asked a cartoonist to create a rubber man as the Michelin emblem.
His first pronouncements, which were general sermons promoting the pleasures of motoring (in automobiles equipped with Michelin tires, of course), were published with an ecclesiastical red cover in 1900 and distributed free of charge. Readers found handy travel tips, such as how to change a tire and where to find gas supplies in France, plus hotels offering room and board—some with electricity and running water, some without. In 1920, bookshops started selling the guide with all advertising banned from its pages, and restaurants were listed for the first time. Monsieur Michelin had discovered his true vocation: preaching the gospel of gastronomy. Six years later, Michelin began awarding star ratings, bestowing blessings on some restaurants and punishing others for their failings, with a moral rectitude both respected and feared throughout the land.
Paul Bocuse, the French chef who first turned cooking into a glamorous profession, earned the ultimate Michelin consecration, three stars, in 1965, and has kept them ever since. He is naturally a believer in the Michelin creed. “It’s the most honest guide in the world. It’s the only one which is completely noncommercial and not dependent on publicity in any way,” Bocuse said. “The inspectors never identify themselves before the meal, only after, and there are always new ones, so you can’t recognize them. They always pay for their meal, too, so there’s never any question of influencing their opinion.”
Quite a few of France’s chefs make an annual pilgrimage to Paris to remind the great Michelin oracle that they are out there trying—and to see if they can pick up any clues that will help them gain those coveted stars. Michelin Headquarters receives between 100,000 to 140,000 letters about French hotels and restaurants a year, which make valuable feedback for any restaurant trying to please its clientele – and those elusive Michelin inspectors. There is no question of ever speaking with them directly and the exact criteria they use to judge a restaurant have never been divulged.
Bocuse, the Michelin acolyte who has been doing it right for the longest time, has his own recipe for three-star success. First and foremost, he says, “You have to be honest, with yourself and your clients. Then you need to surround yourself with a team of talented people you can rely on. You should also stay true to your own style of cooking and not let yourself be influenced by fads and fashions. And, of course, it’s vital to use top-quality products, which we’re lucky enough to have in abundance here in France.”
Most years, the movement of Michelin stars in France, both those that are given and those that are taken away, remains remarkably stable. Usually, 38 to 42 stars shift places at the one-star level, five or six at the two-star rating and no more than three at the top three-star echelon. Admired by readers, courted and feared by chefs, often imitated and criticized, the Red Guide to France consistently sells out of its 520,000–550,000 copy print-run every year. After more than a century, Monseigneur Michelin still reigns supreme over the discerning taste buds of the French and the stars he distributes with such exquisite parsimony cast a brighter glow on a restaurant and its chef than any other culinary prize.
The Michelin Red Guide to France was published on February 28th 2005 and should now be available in book-shops. Alternatively, you can order it from www.amazon.com - all 1,800 pages and 1.8 lbs of it!