What Is a Michelin Star and How Are They Earned?

(Last Updated On: October 12, 2018)

What is a Michelin Star?
If you’ve watched a lot of cooking shows, or eaten at a fair number of fancy restaurants, you’ve probably at least heard of the Michelin Star. But what is a Michelin Star exactly, and how are they earned?

History of the Michelin Guide

It’s not a coincidence that the Michelin star shares a name with the eponymous tire company. The Michelin company, founded in France, was having a hard time selling tires in a country that (at that time) didn’t particularly favor car travel. They decide to try and build demand by encouraging travel, and they wrote Michelin Guides to do this. The original Michelin guides provided information about things like gas stations, repair shops, hotels, and tire repair instructions. The first guide was published in 1900.

A restaurant section was added in the early years, and it quickly became popular. The writers decided to expand this feature with a ranking system, and that’s where the stars come in.

What Is a Michelin Star?

The stars meanings, as outlined in 1936, are as follows:

1 star: A very good restaurant in its category
2 stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour
3 stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey

How Are Michelin Stars Earned?

Michelin hires anonymous reviewers to visit restaurants in specific regions and review them according to internal standards. The number of reviewers employed by Michelin is secret, and their anonymity is fiercely guarded. But even so, they can’t possibly review every restaurant across the world, or even across their specific regions. The to-review pile is chosen my Michelin based partially on media and other reviewers. They also review previously analyzed restaurants and star-levels can move up or down over time. Michelin stars aren’t physical objects, but if a ranking goes down, it can feel like the Michelin star was “taken away”. The stars are technically awarded to restaurants rather than specific chefs, but chefs sometimes consider them personal achievements or personal losses anyway.

The exact specifications for review aren’t public either. But the key themes are said to be quality, technique, and consistency. Service and decor are not supposed to factor into the stars – there are ratings for those elements which use different symbols.

Critics of Michelin Stars

Like any rating system, the Michelin stars and guides are subjective. Accusations of bias and favoritism are regular. The kinds of restaurants that Michelin ranks highly are often French and often expensive. Previous employees have come out and claimed that the number of reviewers is shockingly low, and the system covers pretty limited geographical space. In the US, for example, the guide covers on a city-level, and only four cities are covered: Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington DC. A few chefs have tried to “give back” their stars for various reasons, with mixed levels of success.

Other awards like the James Beard and World’s 50 Best Restaurants lists are some of the Michelin Guide’s biggest competitors, but they suffer from similar criticisms of bias and limitation.

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