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Michelin Star - France History and its Culinary Use Today

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When the Michelin Stars Align | A Badge of Culinary Honor

photography courtesy of MICHELIN, GRAND HOTEL VILLA SERBELLONI AND JARAD GALLAGHER

Mistral Restaurant
The culinary equivalent of an Academy Award, a Michelin Guide star denotes quality, creativity, consistency…and the promise of a really great meal.

To auto aficionados, the name Michelin likely conjures images of fat black tires burning rubber through the streets of Le Mans. After all, Michelin, upon its founding, was first and foremost an automotive industry company. But to the world’s gourmands, the name Michelin prompts visions of stars—Michelin stars, the culinary equivalent of an Academy Award.

Both versions of the Michelin name are correct, but it’s the cuisine-focused Michelin Guide, featuring thousands of recommended eateries throughout the world, that resonates deeply with a food-loving public and talented chefs who reach for those stars. Make no mistake, in the restaurant world, a Michelin star matters. There are only three spots in Orange County that carry the distinguished title of Michelin star restaurants, including Knife Pleat, Taco María and Hana re.

The Michelin Guide as culinary authority happened organically. Originally conceived in Clermont-Ferrand, France at the end of the 19th century as motivation for motorists to get out and drive, its founders Andre and Edouard Michelin (sibling proprietors of the tire company) strove to help tourists create personal itineraries by producing the small red guide that included tire-changing instructions and gas station locations. 

For 20 years their guide was gratis. In 1920, they started charging seven francs for an expanded version that included Paris hotel and restaurant lists. Success dictated additional growth and the brothers recruited a team of inspectors to visit and review restaurants anonymously. In 1926, the guide initiated its single star system—five years later, they added the one, two, three star ranking system for which the guide continues to be known to this day.

1931-1932 - Affiche Guide Rouge (nouvelles _toiles)
Le Guide s_internationalise

The Michelin Guide rating system is now present in 39 destinations throughout the world, with Stars awarded annually for outstanding cuisine. A Michelin Guide-covered destination can be a city, a region, or a country that inspectors visit regularly to appraise local restaurants before drawing up their annual selection. 

A one Michelin star establishment is defined as “a good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard.” Two stars indicates “a restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality.

And a celebrated three stars is “a restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.” Worldwide, the number of rated restaurants includes 2,658 one-Michelin-Star restaurants, 482 two-Michelin-Star restaurants, and 137 three-Michelin-Star restaurants.

“The decision whether to award one or more Stars to a restaurant is a collaborative effort among the Michelin Guide’s anonymous inspectors,” Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guides, says. 

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Mistral Appetizer

“When the inspectors are considering awarding a Star, they always visit the restaurant multiple times, with different inspectors each time, to ensure consistent quality and the satisfaction of our five criteria: 1) quality products, 2) harmony of flavors, 3) the mastery of cooking techniques, 4) the personality of the chef in the cuisine, and 5) consistency between each visit.”

“These five criteria of the Michelin Guide are always the same worldwide, and this is what gives our method and our recommendations its strength. The decision to award Stars is always a collegial one. Moreover, there is no set rule for how many times inspectors must visit a restaurant, and our inspectors do not have quotas. Coming from a wide range of countries and backgrounds, they are open-minded to any kind of culinary propositions a destination offers,” Poullennec added.

Mistral Executive Chef Ettore Bocchia

“When the inspectors are considering awarding a Star, they always visit the restaurant multiple times, with different inspectors each time, to ensure consistent quality and the satisfaction of our five criteria: 1) quality products, 2) harmony of flavors, 3) the mastery of cooking techniques, 4) the personality of the chef in the cuisine, and 5) consistency between each visit.”

Inspectors, each of whom shares a passion for food and an eye for detail, are prohibited from communicating with the media and are even encouraged to keep their line of work secret from friends and family. 

“Our anonymous inspectors are constantly on the ground to monitor the culinary landscape,” Poullennec says. “The decision to introduce a selection in a destination is made by the inspectors when a destination represents a remarkable gastronomic potential. We are always looking into bringing the Michelin Guide to new destinations and discovering new types of cuisines and gourmet concepts.”

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Mistral Appetizer

Restaurant ambiance cannot be denied as a factor in a lovely dining experience, yet ultimately for Michelin, it’s what’s on the plate that counts. The theme of a restaurant and its level of formality have no bearing. 

“Though caviar, foie gras, and Wagyu beef are certainly luxurious ingredients that many people love to eat and which chefs creatively prepare at their Starred dining rooms, the perception that Michelin Stars are awarded only to formal or fancy restaurants is a common misconception,” Michelin Guide’s anonymous chief North America inspector says. “Regardless of the atmosphere – be it formal or casual – Michelin Stars are awarded solely for the food on the plate. Michelin Stars are awarded to restaurants offering a variety of cuisines in various settings – the key word being variety.

Some interesting and delicious examples of the range of Michelin Stars include tapas at Casa Mono in New York, Korean-style noodles at Jeju Noodle Bar in New York, Middle Eastern live-fire cooking at Maydan in Washington D.C., and a Californian take on “dim sum” at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. Globally speaking, Michelin Stars have even been awarded to street food stalls in Bangkok and Singapore.”

 “In the eight years that my restaurant consistently earned a Michelin star, I never knew who the inspectors were or when they visited,” Chef Jarad Gallagher, formerly of contemporary French restaurant Chez TJ in Mountain View, California, a one Michelin star restaurant, says. “My team and I were always on the hunt – every moment and every second we were aware that we were possibly being evaluated. This not knowing actually makes the dining experience better for everybody. We were always on our toes.”

Chef Jarad Gallagher

Chef Jarad Gallagher

Gallagher, who now owns Spanish-focused Mediterranean restaurant Broma, also in Mountain View, feels that Michelin is a supportive company, and he greatly admires the inspectors, whomever they are. 

“They are smart, and they know that Michelin representing a restaurant means that the restaurant represents Michelin,” Gallagher says. “But trying to define the essence of Michelin is futile, though we do have enough data from those star-awarded establishments to see some generalities. Michelin star restaurants are consistent; the chefs tend to know and understand their product, delivering it in a way that’s informed and enjoyable. As a Michelin restaurant chef, you need to have a voice, and you need to work really hard at developing and maintaining that voice. Michelin does not give passes.”

Mistral Dining Room

Another Michelin misconception? That a star automatically translates to business and attention and that once awarded, a restaurant automatically gains mythic status in the food industry. “No doubt it’s a huge advantage for a brand and for a chef,” Jan Bucher says, general manager of Lake Como’s Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni and its one Michelin star Mistral Restaurant, whose executive chef Ettore Bocchia is considered the father of Italian molecular cuisine. “But it’s also an immense responsibility, as we have to work hard to preserve it. In our case, we invest in innovative cooking techniques and the quality of the raw materials, and we have some products that are really hard to find.”

“The Michelin star spotlight benefits restaurants in a significant way,” Bucher added. “For us at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, the only luxury hotel in the entire Lake Como area with a Michelin star, the recognition presents an opportunity to share with guests our original approach. It’s a way to attract targeted guests looking for something really unique—the so-called Michelin experience.”

The Mistral Team Readies for Service

“Since its founding in 1900, the main goal of the Michelin Guide hasn’t changed: It strives to choose the best places by providing honest and high-quality recommendations to culinary connoisseurs all over the world,” Poullennec says. “The Guide’s methodology (a Michelin Star has the same value in New York or in Tokyo) as well as the independence and anonymity of its inspectors are a major element of differentiation and confidence for the gourmets who use the guide when they are looking for a good restaurant.”

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