The Real Meaning of Michelin Stars Secret Rating System Explained

For almost a century now, the Michelin Stars are considered a Holy Grail among the chefs and restaurant owners and patrons all over the globe. Appearing in the Michelin Guide is a hallmark of fine dining and original, world-class dishes. 

Foodies from all corners of the world view the “Red Book”, as it is often called due to its crimson covers, as their Bible and ultimate authority when it comes to finding the most exciting places to eat. 

It’s not just a plain list of recommendations, the Michelin Guide is rather a guarantee of a memorable experience and a proof that a restaurant lives up to the highest possible standards.

The Beginning: Michelin Star History Starts with a Tire Company in France

The automotive giant and the leader in the tire production is not the company you would expect to be the publisher of the world’s foremost food guide. The white chubby fellow made of tires is hard to imagine as a mascot that symbolizes fine dining. Even if you tried, you could hardly find two fields that have less to do with each other. At least at the first sight, until you dig a bit deeper into the history of the Michelin Guide. 

The Michelin company was founded in Central France, in 1889, when the automotive industry was still in its very early stages. At the time there were no more than 3.000 cars in all of France. 

In an effort to boost the development of the auto industry and motivate car owners to take more trips, and literally burn more rubber, company founders, the Michelin brothers, came up with an idea of publishing a guide for travelers

The publication contained a tire changing manual, locations of the petrol stations, and a list of places where a weary traveler could lodge for a night or get something to eat. In a way, it was like the old-timey Google Maps. The last item on this list was crucial for the conception of what is today known as the most prestigious restaurant guide.

After World War I, the automotive industry was already at full swing, and petrol and service stations were not that hard to find any more. The Michelin brothers decided to shift the focus of the publication from helpful tips for motorists to the food, restaurants, and hotels

According to Stephen Harp’s book “Marketing Michelinby the year 1927, the 990 pages guide included only 5 pages dedicated to tires, a stark contrast to 62 pages 25 years earlier. The publishers realized what they got their hands on, and soon began hiring anonymous restaurant inspectors whose job was to visit and review dining establishments. 

The Michelin Stars grading system was first introduced in 1926, initially awarding only a single star to places deemed worthy of it. In 1931, the Michelin Guide established three-star categorization, and five years later revealed their star-rating criteria. At that point, The Michelin Guide, as we know it today, was born. Besides its value to the food culture, it is also viewed as one of the most genius marketing plots of the century

There’s an interesting tidbit of history that testifies to the quality of the guide and the maps at that time. They were so precise and full of useful information that during World War II, the 1939 edition of the Michelin Guide was reprinted in Washington DC and used for orientation by English and American troops invading Normandy

What is the meaning of Michelin Stars for a Restaurant?

The restaurants in the Michelin Guide are rated based on a three-star system. The stars are extremely difficult to obtain and only the finest restaurants in the world are deemed worthy to even appear on the pages of the guide. 

Unlike the traditional five-star system where one star is a mark of a below-par establishment seriously lacking in quality, the restaurant deserving the lowest Michelin grade, one star, is still the cream of the crop among the industry’s counterparts

Besides the honor and prestige that comes with Michelin Stars, the recipients gain a significant increase in business and exposure. The stars are awarded based on five criteria which we’ll discuss later, and the review process is long and meticulous, usually taking at least a year, often longer. 

The emphasis is on the food itself, rather than the fancy interior decor or service, although these aspects are also noted in the guide. A good example of this is one of the recent additions, a modest fast-food stall in Singapore where you can get the Michelin Star meal for under $2

  • One Star – is awarded to the restaurant that is good within its category and offers a consistently high standard of cuisine. These are the places worth stopping by if you find yourself in the area. The chef needs to prove the mastery of trade and provide a menu that distinguishes the restaurant from similar establishments.
  • Two Stars – indicate a restaurant that provides excellent cooking which is worth a deviation from your route. The reviewers focus not only on the taste of the food but also pay attention to the quality of ingredients, originality, and craftiness involved in preparing dishes. 
  • Three Stars – the most coveted award in the culinary world, point to the restaurant with the exceptional cuisine that is worth the journey on itself. These restaurants serve exceptional dishes made from superb ingredients. Creativity also plays a big role here and chefs that are worthy of this award are usually trendsetters in the culinary world. The overall reputation of the restaurant and its chef is also taken into account. 

Besides the star system, the Michelin guide also has two other categories of recognition. The Michelin Plate is awarded to the restaurants that are included in Michelin Guide, and that feature quality and affordable food. Although this rating doesn’t carry the weight of one, two, or three-star awards, the appearance in the Michelin Guide itself is a remarkable success for most of the restaurants. This category was added to the guide in 2018.

The Bib Gourmand designation was introduced in 1997 and stands for good food at moderate prices. Restaurants in this category feature meals consisting of two courses, dessert, and a glass of wine, all under $40.

In 2020, the Michelin Guide introduced a new “Green Clover” symbol for restaurants with “commendable environmental practices”. It awards self-sustainable establishments that practice green philosophy and grow their own food or work closely with small local producers of healthy ingredients. 

The Michelin Stars Criteria and Restaurant Review Process to Qualify for the Guide

The Michelin Guide has a small army of reviewers who scour the world in search of restaurants worthy of the Michelin Stars. The process begins with extensive reading of local food blogs and publications to create a list of establishments that create a lot of positive buzzes and could be worth a review. 

After that, the chosen restaurant receives an initial visit from an anonymous inspector. The chef, staff, and the restaurant owner and patrons are not aware of the visit or the time it will take place and the identity of the evaluator. If the inspector finds the restaurant to be exceptional, it will be visited several times more, and if proven to have consistent quality, may be awarded a Michelin Star. 

When listed in the Michelin Guide, a restaurant receives a visit every 18 months, or more frequently if it’s up for a change in status. All of this implies a lot of work for the team of over 120 Michelin’s reviewers all around the globe

An interview with one of the mystery inspectors published in Forbes provides a rare insight into this world. Potential Inspectors, usually with culinary or service background, go through months of extensive training with seniors at locations all over the globe. Once established, they travel for three weeks each month and eat up to 10 meals a week in various restaurants

The star recommendation of a particular reviewer is discussed at sessions with colleagues and once a year the Michelin Stars are awarded. The recipients are usually announced in October each year

The 5 Main Criteria Behind Michelin Stars

The Michelin Stars are awarded on a set of criteria that are mostly unchanged for almost a century. It revolves around five core principles developed in 1936.

  • The first one is using quality products, meaning that all of the ingredients need to be fresh, and of exceptional taste and superior quality. 
  • Mastery of flavor and cooking techniques implies that the chefs have reached a high level of their craft and can use the knowledge and skill to push new boundaries and explore new directions. The chef needs to be able to perfectly combine different flavors in the dish and, also, present it on a plate in a remarkable way
  • Besides the skill and knowledge, the dish also needs to reflect the specific personality of a chef. The people behind the Michelin Guide consider cooking an art form and want to see personal imprint setting the dish apart.
  • A value for the money the meal provides is also taken into account when awarding the Michelin Stars. The restaurants in the Michelin Guide are typically rather expensive and the dish needs to provide something exceptional for that cost. 
  • Consistency and maintaining culinary standards are the main reason why the restaurants holding Michelin Stars are subject to constant revision. The inspectors want to see the same, or even improved, quality of food every time they make a sudden visit. 

To find out more about Michelin Stars visit our list of the Top 10 Michelin Star Chefs in the World or head over and see how your country ranks in our List of 25 Countries With the Most Michelin Stars