When most people think of October, they usually picture leering pumpkins and spooky spirits (or, at the very least, sheets with eye-holes cut out of them). For those in the restaurant industry, however, this time of year means something totally different – but no less frightening.
On the 1st of October, at an awards ceremony in Waterloo's BFI IMAX cinema, chefs and restaurateurs gathered in nervous anticipation for this year’s verdict. Will their restaurant be awarded the all-important accolade? Or will they lose a star they previously held? That is an important distinction to make, too – it is restaurants who receive the Michelin stars, rather than chefs.
What are Michelin stars?
You have almost certainly heard of them, and you probably know that they are what can only be described as ‘a big deal’ in the restaurant industry. But how did a French tyre company become the world’s premier authority on fine cuisine? To answer this, we have to go back to the year 1900.
In France at that time, there were fewer than 3,000 cars on the roads; as tyre manufacturers, this presented a problem to brothers Édouard and André Michelin. They decided to take matters into their own hands by producing a free guide for French motorists (entitled – you guessed it – the Michelin Guide) containing maps, tyre repair and replacement instructions, car mechanics listings, hotels, and petrol stations throughout France.
Following the success of their first publication, the brothers went on to create subsequent guides for other countries. This was suspended during the First World War, after which the Michelins began to charge for their guides. In 1926, the first stars were awarded to fine dining establishments and from then on, the guide was refined, with further stars added and criteria published.
Although it was once again halted for the duration of World War II, the guide as we know it today had taken shape as a trusted and respected encyclopaedia of the best restaurants and hotels in countries around the world.
How do you earn a star?
There is much secrecy surrounding the entire process but, as Jay Rayner points out, this secrecy is "part of what makes Michelin so interesting (and infuriating)." According to Michelin themselves, the stars reflect "what's on the plate and only what's on the plate". The five criteria they are judged on are:
Factors such as the restaurant’s decor and the level of service do not influence the star ratings at all. Instead, they are represented separately as fork and spoon symbols in the guide.
In terms of the inspectors, there are 80 and their identities are a closely guarded secret. According to The Guardian, “Every year, each inspector evaluates 240 restaurants, spends 130 nights in hotels, carries out 800 inspections, writes 1,100 reports and drives 18,000 miles. A typical day starts at 7am and ends at 11pm.”
The inspectors always retain their anonymity during their meal and pay the bill, however, some may introduce themselves and ask for more information after eating. If they aren’t sure about a restaurant, they will call in reinforcements in the form of another inspector who will visit and offer a second opinion. After carrying out their individual assessments, they meet with the editor of the Michelin Guide and the director of Michelin several times a year to begin to compile the rankings and compare reports.
Are Michelin Stars still a valuable indication of quality?
This is not really a huge bone of contention. It is true that some people in the restaurant industry cast doubt on whether the guide is more biased towards a certain type of food. And, although Michelin may have some limitations – several critics suggest there is a certain amount of partiality shown to establishments in France, for instance – it still stands up as a reliable and highly regarded institution.
David Moore, owner of London’s longest standing, independently starred restaurant Pied à Terre, puts it best when he says: “The Michelin guide is the only truly global guide. Being part of it puts your restaurant on the global stage, driving increased business and spend. The downside can be the perceived pressure to maintain standards and consistency, but it’s important to remember that it was your cooking that got the star and it will be your cooking that keeps the star.”
Congratulations to all those named in 2019’s guide – to those who missed out, there’s always next year. You can find all the London restaurants featured in the 2019 guide below.
Three Michelin Stars
Two Michelin Stars
One Michelin Star
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