The Michelin Guide: A Brief History

Courtesy of the Business Insider

As a “foodie” with a history of almost 17 years experience working in restaurants, a long time reader of Bon Appetit and Food and Wine magazines, and a well seasoned at-home chef, I have wanted to write about this for a long time. I figured that since Michelin is a huge company which wears multiple hats it wouldn’t be too hard to dig up some info (or find articles already written about) the history of the Michelin Guide and Michelin Stars. 

While bringing up this topic to many friends and acquaintances, I was surprised to learn that some of them (especially the “foodies”) didn’t know that Michelin, the tire company, is responsible for the prestige Michelin dining recognitions and recommendations. But they are one and the same company! A Scottish man I met a couple weeks ago works for Michelin in Paris and was here for a conference on transportation. When I told him about my idea for this blog post, he gave me a very succinct version of how the Michelin Guide was started. The Paris office is also home to the Guide headquarters, so he was pretty in-the-know and his summary only sparked my interest more (though it was enough to wow, then satisfy, my friends who weren’t as interested, haha).

Courtesy of Michelin

So, how did a tire company become the source we look to for the world’s best chefs and restaurants?

As the gentleman told me, “Michelin is a tire company. To encourage people to drive more and use their tires, they decided to recommend places for people to travel and things to do / places to eat while visiting their destinations. ‘Drive 300 miles to this place, stay here, eat here, drive 300 miles back. Let us know how your trip went and how you liked the tires.’ It makes sense.” Indeed, it does. It seems so simple yet most people don’t make the connection (though you’ll see the Michelin Man on stickers of restaurant windows, I think most people just don’t pay attention, or maybe they don’t really care, and that’s ok).   

There he is!

In some ways the Michelin guide was a marketing ploy and business decision for the tire company because the more people drive, the more they’ll need to change their tires. The more their tires are seen and talked about around various countries, the more customers they’ll likely have.

As I guessed, there are plenty of articles written about the history of Michelin’s involvement in the food and travel world. Here are a few choice articles, from which I have drawn the interesting points highlighted below. 

Highlights:

  • Michelin brothers Andre and Edouard started the Michelin Guide in 1900, 11 years after launching their tire company
  • The original Guides recommended hotels, mechanics, and gasoline “vendors” all over France. These guides also contained maps and instructions on changing tires
  • Country-specific guides went into production and Michelin began charging for their guides in 1920
  • It was in 1926 that Michelin Guide began to include the star rating for fine dining restaurants
  • At the beginning of WWII, production of the Guides was suspended; however, the Allied Forces requested that it start being printed again 
  • Star ratings go to chefs, not restaurants
    • 1 star = The chef has succeeded at the highest level 
    • 2 stars = The chef’s restaurant is excellent
    • 3 stars = The chef’s restaurant is worth traveling 
  • Michelin’s “inspectors” for the Guide must have extensive background in the culinary arts and pass the Michelin Guide training in France
    • These “inspectors” are anonymous and banned from interviewing with journalists
    • Pascal Remy, a previous Guide inspector, published a book in 2004 revealing his disenchantment with the franchise, claiming to have been underpaid, and of the position that Michelin standards are falling
  • The Michelin Guide has only been in America since 2005 and now covers the following cities:
    • New York
    • Chicago
    • San Francisco
    • Washington, DC
    • Previous cities:
      • Las Vegas
      • Los Angelas
      • Both cities had starred chefs/restaurants, but Michelin pulled their guides from these cities in 2009. Some restaurants still claim to be Michelin starred, but are holding on to their previous star reputation
  • Michelin’s Bib Gourmand covers more economically friendly restaurants, with no stars allotted

You can explore all the Michelin Stars, cities, Bib Gourmand, and Michelin Plate recommendations here.

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