Travel Guides & Tips

7 things all budding gourmands need to know about the Michelin Guide

Like it or hate it, the Michelin Guide is considered the Oscars of the culinary world and is often the go-to guide for ardent food lovers. However, the people behind the Michelin Guide are notorious for being vague and secretive about the process of putting together the annual restaurant guide.

With the release of Traveloka’s “50 Cheapest Michelin Meals”, we realized that there are a lot of misconceptions and myths surrounding the Michelin Guide – so in this explainer, we attempt to clear some of them up for you… Let’s dive in!

How did the Michelin Guide come to be?

Michelin Guide
Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Also known as the “Red Book” thanks to the distinctive crimson cover of the printed guide, the Michelin Guide was introduced by French tire company Michelin in 1889 by brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin.

Why would a tire company write a guide about restaurants, you ask? Well, they wanted to encourage motorists to drive around the country with their guide, which included useful information for travelers, such as maps, instructions on how to change a tire, where to fill up petrol, and a listing of places to eat or take shelter for the night. Basically the analog version of Google Maps.

Over time, the Michelin brothers realized that the guide’s restaurant section was garnering more attention and set up a team of anonymous diners (now known as “Michelin Guide inspectors”) to visit and review restaurants. The guide began awarding stars in 1926, with the three-star system going into effect in 1931. Today, the Michelin Guide rates over 30,000 establishments in over 30 territories across three continents.


How are restaurants ranked in the Michelin Guide?

Michelin Stars
Credit: The Michelin Guide

The Michelin star rating is generally accepted as the gold standard in the culinary world – getting a Michelin star earns you rockstar status. But have you ever wondered what’s the difference between a 1 Michelin Star restaurant and a 3 Michelin Star restaurant? Here’s what the rankings mean:

  • 1 Michelin Star: “A very good restaurant in its category”
  • 2 Michelin Stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”
  • 3 Michelin Stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”

When it comes to awarding Michelin stars, inspectors are not influenced by anything other than the food. They do not identify themselves as inspectors, as anonymity is key, and pay for their meals like any other customer would.

Other aspects of the restaurant, such as interior decor, table setting or service quality are indicated by the fork and spoon symbol – a restaurant can be given one to five, from “Quite comfortable” to “Luxury in the traditional style”. These symbols are either in black or red: black indicates that it is basic and red shows that the venue is particularly luxurious.


Does the Michelin Guide only give out Michelin stars?

Bib Gourmand and The Plate

Michelin stars aren’t the only way that the Michelin Guide recognizes restaurants. In 1955, the guide introduced a second designation, known as “Bib Gourmand”, seeking to highlight restaurants offering “exceptionally good food at moderate prices”. Named after “Bib”, the company’s mascot who is otherwise known as the Michelin Man, the list features restaurants that offer quality cuisine at affordable prices. These restaurants receive a Bib icon next to their name.

The newest Michelin Guide category, unveiled in 2018, is the Michelin Plate. The symbol, which comprises a fork and knife next to a plate, is used for restaurants listed in the guide that have neither a star nor a Bib Gourmand. However, being included in the Michelin Guide means that inspectors found the restaurant’s food noteworthy, though not quite worthy of a Michelin star or Bib Gourmand… yet.


Are only restaurants awarded Michelin stars?


Michelin’s sneaky ninja food inspectors only look at the food when deliberating over whether to award stars to a restaurant. So stars are technically awarded to a restaurant. But when we say “Michelin-starred chef”, what we mean is that the chef was an influential factor behind the restaurant receiving its Michelin star(s). Meaning that if the chef leaves the restaurant, the Michelin Guide may decide to take a star away from the restaurant, depending on how integral the chef was in their assessment.

Despite this, Michelin stars are often associated with famous chefs, so when Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York City lost both of its Michelin stars in 2013, Gordon Ramsay himself was devastated. He was quoted saying, “It’s a very emotional thing for any chef. It’s like losing a girlfriend. You want her back. I think every top chef in the world, from Alain Ducasse to Guy Savoy, when you lose a star it’s like losing the Champions League.” Ouch.


What does it take to earn a Michelin star?


The exact scoring system for the Michelin Guide is a well-kept secret meant to keep restaurateurs and chefs on their toes. According to the Michelin Guide, inspectors assess a restaurant’s food based on five objective criteria: the quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money and consistency of quality between visits.

The Michelin Guide’s international director, Michael Ellis, explains that inspectors take a conservative approach to awarding stars. “It may be that in the first year, inspectors think that the restaurant is a solid star but not quite two, we’d rather wait a year before giving the second star than give a second star too soon and have to take it away. We also consider things like: is this second star going to push them forward? Is the kitchen ready to handle a second star?”

But to be awarded the highest rating – the coveted 3 Michelin Stars – restaurants must offer more than excellent food. And that extra factor, according to Ellis, is emotion. “Every three-star restaurant has a very unique signature and I think that what we look for in a three-star meal is an emotional experience and you should have that experience engraved in your memory for many years to come,” he said.


Are all Michelin-starred restaurants expensive, fine dining restaurants?

Singapore Hawker Stall

It might seem as though most Michelin-starred eateries are upscale restaurants that attract the wine-and-dine crowd, but that’s not always the case. Sure, the 3 Michelin Star restaurants probably fit that stereotype of white tablecloths and crystal wine glasses, but if you browse through our “50 Cheapest Michelin Meals” list, there are plenty of 1 Michelin Star restaurants that don’t require fancy dress.

In fact, you can find popular street food hawkers on the list, such as Bangkok’s Jay Fai, famous for her crab omelets and radna noodles, and Singapore’s Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, which came out on top for the cheapest Michelin-starred eatery. Both have dishes that cost around RM50 or less. I know what you’re thinking: “RM50 or less for a Michelin food experience?? Say whaaaat?” Yep, it’s true… Better add these restaurants to your bucket list!


Can Michelin stars be “returned” or taken away?

Long Queue
Credit: Channarong Jaisan / Shutterstock

You’ve probably heard about the so-called “Michelin curse”, whereby being awarded a Michelin star brought so much attention to an eatery that it couldn’t cope with the pressure or sudden influx of customers. Oh, the perils of fame. This has resulted in chefs saying that they wished to “return” their stars. In response, the Michelin Guide has said that any stars or designation they give is merely an opinion – there is no physical award to return.

However, stars can be taken away by Michelin inspectors, so some restaurants have resorted to changing their menu or chefs in order to purposely lose their star(s). That said, in the 2018 France edition of the Michelin Guide, acclaimed restaurant Le Suquet à Laguiole – previously a 3 Michelin Star restaurant – was surprisingly excluded from the list. As it turns out, head chef Sébastien Bras was tired of the constant stress of maintaining the 3 star rating and had requested for the restaurant to no longer be included in the guide – a rare first.

For the most part, Michelin stars are still considered one of the highest honors a restaurant could receive.

Going for a Michelin-starred meal doesn’t have to mean blowing the travel budget – we’ve found the 50 cheapest Michelin meals and ranked them by the price of an individual meal so you can eat beautiful, delicious, Michelin-worthy food wherever you go in the world.

A storyteller with an insatiable sense of curiosity. Travel junkie. Card-carrying member of many fandoms. Heavily dependent on caffeine. Loyal cat servant. Former journalist at the New Straits Times and Hybrid News.

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