This is a very complex question and deserves a book, not less. I'll try to cover the basics and just go from there.
First, we have to acknowledge what Michelin really is. It is not a list of the "best" restaurants in the world and was never designed to be one. It is also not a list of the best chefs or cooks or the most expensive meals, though gaining a Michelin star can do a number on prices since many restaurateurs will, if they can, raise prices. Let us not forget that the restaurant business is a small margin business. Looking at other production blue collar jobs, we get green with envy more than once every day. Getting a chance to elevate our bottom line is a hard thing to pass up.
How It Came To Be
Michelin started as a road atlas for Michelin tire customers. Back then, one star meant "you can safely eat here without getting the runs," two stars meant "if you happen to pass this place do stop and have some food," and three stars simply conveyed "if you're hungry, this one is worth adding twenty miles to your trip and taking a diversion."
What one, two, or three stars mean today is largely unanswered. Michelin itself insists that three stars simply mean the same as they did then, only adjusted for a much more mobile society. Yeah, whatever.
In order to receive a star, you have to be, most importantly, in an area that is covered by Michelin. I could start a place that rivals the French Laundry in Dallas and would never get one - Dallas is, currently, not covered by Michelin. In America, this would be New York City, the Silicon Valley, San Francisco, East Bay and Wine Country, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Las Vegas. You will notice that no southern cities are included. America is special, in this case, in that Michelin guides are written per city or (in the case of San Francisco) small area, not state or country as they are elsewhere.
Compounding this issue is Michelin's propensity to under-staff. While Michelin is a very secretive organization, Pascal Rémy, a former Michelin Inspector and trusted insider after years of writing and editing for Michelin, spilled the beans in 2004. Rémy has since claimed that all of America has only seven Inspectors, not even close enough to do a review of every restaurant deserving of one. He claims that starred places are reviewed every three to four years, and that some stars are awarded based on a perception what readers want to see in the catalog, not reviews.
Your journey to the stars, if it is in a reviewed city, starts with media that isn't Michelin. Local bloggers, food writers, and critics. Michelin seeds its "to review" pile from those reviews, employing staff in the U.S. that reads everything written about restaurants in Michelin cities and sorting it, creating a list of places to review. If you want to expedite this, bribe those who are known to pander to foodies more than gourmets - as soon as your name is all over the blogs, chances are high that Michelin will notice.
Back in the day (and to some extent still), chefs did the "walk to Canossa" (google it) annually, coming to Paris to meet with the Michelin editors and to discuss the reasons behind deserving or not deserving another star. During the 50s and 60s, this route was open even to Bib Gourmands, these days nothing short of a two or three star chef can hope to gain an audience. Not every chef does such walks, American chefs even less than their French colleagues, but it is another way to ensure remaining in the loop.
Wanting to be Michelin Starred
Not every restaurant wants to be Michelin starred. Few think about the stars on opening day, and those who do rarely make it there. Yes, there are "designed" restaurants that, like boy bands, are really nothing but a massive marketing and research apparatus, built to get that coveted star, but they're "One Stars" - not designed to be two or three star places.
At some point down the road, reviews being good and magazines like Food and Wine or other review groups, such as Zagat, being happy - the thought creeps up. "Could we be starred?"
Good chefs and restaurateurs never stray from their route, but small adjustments can help tremendously in attracting Michelin reviewers. But in the end, when rubber hits road, it's all about service, food, and ambiance.
The Bib Gourmand Route
Named after the Michelin Man (called Bibendum from nunc est bibendum) the Bib Gourmand is a relatively new (1955) idea. It highlights places that feature cheap and good food. It's relatively easy to conform to the lines, sell two courses, a glass of wine, and dessert for under $40 and make it good.
The Rising Stars Route
Although originally created to denote one- and two-stars who are in consideration for a second or third star next year, the "rising star" was extended to also apply to new restaurants who are likely to be starred come the next evaluation (implying that they'll read this and put in extra effort). Once you made it into a rising star there's a chance the inspector won't pass you by.
Thinking about Stars
I never consciously hunted stars. Continuing my with train of thought above, getting a star isn't so much about quality but about both quality and a very rigid set of things Michelin cares about. Michelin has been accused of being francocentric and to skip over other cultures' cooking and ambiance. This is partially true. Fact of the matter is that Michelin has to review with a narrow set of rules in mind. Luckily, we're not all the same and don't all look for the same food and experiences, so making everyone happy is hard. A guide like Michelin therefore has to select its audience and cater to them, Michelin's audience is by its history and mothership French fine dining fans.
The most important aspect of any critic, individual, or group, is reliability and stability in one's tastes. Not everyone follows critics slavishly, though publications like Michelin have a propensity to create mindless drones, and many readers seek to hear from someone whose tastes they know and are able to filter through their experiences with other recommendations. Yes, that means that some critics make their living by being the guys and gals who have to destroy a place verbally to get it more customers.
Getting Starred (or Bibbed)
Sometimes you're lucky and the stars align. Your concept appeals to people to whom Michelin rated restaurants appeal, the blogs and critics are writing about you, and one of the scouts Michelin sends out (since the disaster of 2010 where Michelin two-starred two restaurants that had closed months prior) finds you, writes about you internally, and piques the interest of a Michelin inspector who comes by and doesn't have to wait for more than a few minutes for their table.
You'll likely not get rated that year. But you're in the portfolio, now, and will get inspector visits. Pray that whoever comes to inspect has the same taste as you and there might be the call...
"Bonjour, this is [name] with Le Guide Michelin. We're calling to inform you that you will be included as a Bib Gourmand, Rising Star, One Star, in the next Michelin Guide for [city]"
This is one of those calls everyone wants and everyone dreads. What's next? Hopefully there's some money to start upgrading your system to accommodate the rush of diners you will experience. Hopefully you have a real reservation system, not just a notebook. And hopefully (as happened to my friend Nick) your chef didn't just leave in a huff and take his staff with him.
What happens then
First, very long, nothing. Internally there's some celebration and some preemptive calling of friends and whomever you want to know, but the dining landscape at large doesn't change. The dining room, kitchen, staff, and processes are streamlined since a listing in the guide will mean more business. Now is the time to decide on and get acquainted with a highly performant reservation system or to max out the existing one. In one case, I worked in a small restaurant which had just received the call for its first star. The owner (and chef) spent days rolling back reservations to book and host (from a very clunky PC system) since this was what worked best. And it did.
Now is also the time to talk to banks and investors. Who wouldn't want to be in on ground zero for a new star? Well, some don't, but many do. Fix up the kitchen, work on some new dishes, and wait...
The Day After
The weeks after being first listed are usually crazy. People come from all over the place to try the food and to be able to say they were there "while it was still cool and quaint" or something like that. Your A-team kitchen and floor staff will be exhausted but happy. Servers will spend days raving about the sudden drastic increase in tips and diner attitude, cooks will hopefully have gotten a raise, too.
There will be a difference depending on where your restaurant is located. Tokyo, SF, NYC, or Paris your response will be massive but muted compared to, say, Franconia in Germany. Franconia is a small area in the north of Bavaria, best known for its wines, beers, game (especially venison), and produce. Getting a star in this area means to be flooded with calls from journalists, TV, and radio stations and to spend days rejecting book deals and many, many, shady propositions.
Getting Up There
Once there's a star in the house things change. Not just in the kitchen and dining room but also in the minds of those who hold it. It's addictive, the star business. Now it's time to hold on to the star and make some more. That's much, much, more of an issue than getting to one star. Not only will you have to maintain your quality and standards Michelin holds you to, you'll have to improve massively. The Essigbratele in Nuernberg, Germany, received its first star in 1999 and improved by leaps and bounds every year until it was finally found worthy of a second star in 2007, eight years later. Bernard Loiseau worked for ten years to get three stars.
Two stars are not a natural succession to one star. To climb from one to two is much harder than climbing from zero to one. Three stars ... well, in order for a restaurant to earn those accolades a whole host of reviewers and editors has to be pleased, the place has to have a clean reputation (Michelin won't star you if you're, say, implicated in a little drug trafficking, no matter how good your food. Ask Alfons Schubeck about that if you get a chance. He did nothing except take over from his boss who lost his concession due to coke issues ... and remains at two stars ever since 1993 when he was indicted for (but not convicted of) money laundering.
Michelin starred restaurants have a few things in common. The "chef" is in. Every day. Places that phone it in do not have much of a chance. Unlike, say, the local news or even Zagat, Michelin stars are evaluated by numerous reviewers, only getting more the higher the score. A two-star has, so Pascal Rémy, a Michelin reviewer almost monthly in its dining room. Think about this for a second - one screwed up dinner and ... BAM!
Beware the dangers of fame... foodies are a fickle bunch and more interested in following the quickly changing winds of media-created food trends than natural evolution of food and restaurants. With stars comes exposure. You'll be inundated by foodTV and foodMedia requests, diners will suddenly act as if they know you, and the slightest utterance will become mantra and point of contention online and on TV. Few diners understand Michelin as a "this is what we love" list of inspectors and, instead, expect it to be an authoritative guide to food they will love. Which couldn't be further from the truth. After receiving our star, we noticed that both baseless praise and baseless complaints went way up. Some people praised us not for what we did but for what stars we had on the door, some people just slammed us because it's in to slam Michelin stars, as a proxy for the perceived xenophobia and francocentrism of Michelin ratings, and because we failed to make them as happy as other Michelin starred places.
A chef or restaurateur who listens to either is either at risk to become complacent and dependent on sycophants or depressed and trying to follow the quick changing tastes of their diners.
Take Bernard Loiseau. A combination of clinical depression, financial woes, and the rise of foodism which followed quick living trends instead of traditional art and craft led to rumors of Cote d'Or being docked one star in 2004 and GM downgrading him from 19 to 17 stars. Bernard, whom I had the honor of meeting and working for for a while, committed suicide on February 24 in the late evening. Although many factors played into this, not the least his medical issues, the stars and the pressure to maintain them definitely played into the suicide. It must be said, however, that without his bipolar phases he'd never arrived at three stars, either.
Having Michelin attention is nice and can bring in some serious dough. Like all fame, though, it can break a restaurant or chef. Personally, I am glad not to be in a Michelin city.More questions on Michelin Guide:
- Is the Michelin Guide a racket?
- What are the best value Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris?
- Which three-starred Michelin restaurants in New York City should I go to?
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