Chefs dream of it, restaurants survive thanks to it, and some even die for it. So why exactly are they such a big deal?
I’m sure a lot of people have heard about the Michelin Star. And it would certainly not come as a surprise if there are some who refuse to eat in restaurants that do not have one. But, at the same time, I’m also sure that there are not that many people who truly understand what a Michelin Star is all about.
How does a Michelin Star make or break a restaurant? Where did it come from? How does it work? Is it reliable enough for us? How can this rating system affect a chef’s business?
To start with, we’ll discuss the origins of the Michelin Star. For those who don’t know it yet, the Michelin Star is a restaurant rating system devised by the owner of a tire company. Yes, you guessed it right, it’s Andre Michelin of Michelin Tyres. At first, his intention was to provide motorists with a free and interesting guide for motorists.
The first Michelin guides were colored blue and it would list down the common information needed by those on the road such as gas stations, garages, parking lots and toilets, as well as accommodations and restaurants where they could eat over the weekend and during holidays in France.
Later on, he realized that his restaurant section is becoming more and more popular, so he decided to concentrate on that direction. He then changed the color of his guides to the color we now are familiar with: red. Aside from the color change, the guides are also now for sale. It still has some useful travel information but they are now primarily about restaurants and food.
It was also during this period when Michelin started hiring anonymous, full-time inspectors who will then visit each restaurant and rate them according to the criteria that have been set down by the guide. Based on their reactions, they could either give the restaurant a one, two, or even three stars. There has been quite a bit of controversy over the rating system and the anonymity of the reviewers. Michael Steinberger goes deep into the controversy in his book Au Revoir to All That. In the section named “Star-Crossed”, Steinberger cites a 2007 study by that showed how the guide paid more attention to decor and location and not just to food. He also mentions how in 2005 the Michelin guide awarded a restaurant that was not yet open. These highlights from his book are tame compared to everything else he reveals in the book.
The controversy does nothing to cure the worlds desire and obsession with Michelin stars. Thanks to the elite and secretive nature of the awards, and the relative history of the guide, almost all restaurants in the world would like to earn the distinction of being one in the list. It’s not just the honor that’s being talked about here. We’re also talking about the economic effects of even a single Michelin Star that a restaurant gains.
Take, for example, restaurants in Chicago. All the restaurants who have received a Michelin Star this year have experienced a jump in their sales, from 10% to 25%. Clearly, being among the best restaurants in the list adds prestige to them, and a little more marketing power to attract customers.
Of course, the same could not be said to their counterparts who have received two and three stars. They are already full of clients to begin with, and they certainly don’t need the Michelin Stars to propel them into the culinary spotlight. Alinea, who received three stars, was already booked for a solid year before the announcement. It’s the same case for other restaurants that are already popular to diners to begin with.
And if it’s true that a star gained could boost sales by 25%, then the opposite is perfectly true as well. History has already shown that restaurants that lost a star could easily lose more than 25% of their sales. That’s why the pressure is on for restaurants to maintain or even exceed their level of food quality and service so that they would not lose their much-coveted honor.
How do I feel about Michelin stars? I believe that guides such as Michelin and New York Times in this era of user generated reviews are relevant. I have dined at plenty of Michelin starred restaurants and agree with the majority of the reviews. I do find a divide between a one star, two star and a three star. The majority of the times, the price difference between a two and a three star restaurant is not significant and the difference in quality is definitely noticeable, so lately I find myself at more three star restaurants. It will be interesting to see what the future of the guide will be and I look forward to next year’s list.