Explained: What Really Is A Michelin Star?

Explained: What Really Is A Michelin Star?
A restaurant with the iconic Michelin star sign outside it, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

And other questions about the culinary accolade you've always wanted to ask

Bhavika Govil
March 06 , 2019
05 Min Read

What is the Michelin star?
The Michelin Food Guide is a set of guidebooks produced by the French tire company, Michelin, that reviews restaurants on a unique rating system— awarding them symbols such as spoon & fork for the service quality, and the elusive star for excellence in food quality. As far as culinary accolades go, the Michelin star is one of the most coveted in the world, alongside the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and the James Beard Awards. Restaurants and their chefs often spend a lifetime chasing the Michelin star, and once received, in keeping it.

How did it start?
Did you know that Michelin is first and foremost a tyre company?The star handed out by Michelin today can make a chef’s career. Such is its influence. However, these guidebooks weren’t always this glamorous. As the story goes, in 1889 the Michelin brothers of the eponymous tire company started a motorists’ guide to the country in a small red handbook. This had maps, information on petrol pumps, tyre-changing stops and also where to grab a bite. This was a smart business move to encourage travel and consequently, help increase the sale of their tyres.

As the popularity for these books, especially the food section, grew, the Michelin brothers decided to make special guides for hospitality and gave increasing relevance to its restaurant section. Soon, in 1926, they began to award what is known as a Michelin star.

So do they only rate food?
Nope! The Michelin Guide Books today give reviews on both hotels and accommodations, and restaurants. However, it is the restaurant section and culinary awards that the brand is most known for—certainly more than the tyres!

How many stars can a place get? What does it mean?
Between one to three! According to the guide itself, one star means ‘high-quality cooking, worth a stop’. Two means ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’. Three stars mean ‘ exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’.

How do they decide which restaurant should get a star? What’s the process?
An inspector taking notes (though we hope that they are more discreet!)We were curious too! The Michelin Guide-folk have luckily revealed their inspection process on their website—here’s a quick summary.  The inspectors are part of the Michelin team and all reviews are anonymous and paid for (no freebies allowed here). They assess restaurants based on the following criteria: quality of products, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money, and importantly, consistency between visits. Read more about the process here

Is it in every country?
No, currently the Michelin is in 30 territories and in three continents. It began its journey in Europe first, and later expanded to the Americas. It is only in 2007, however, that it ventured into Asia, starting with Tokyo in Japan, and later other countries on the continent. 

So, does India have any?
Our eastern neighbours such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, among others, have Michelin Guides. India, however, doesn’t have its own country edition of the Michelin Guidebook, and consecutively, doesn’t have any Michelin-star restaurants. The guides are also said to be an investment on behalf of both the city/ state and Michelin, and as far as we know, India hasn't yet had the opportunity to make that kind of investment.

Until that happens, we wait.

Do any restaurants run by Indian chefs have Michelin stars?
Dishes being prepared for service in a restaurantEven though India doesn’t have any Michelin-restaurants yet, Indian chefs are part of this culinary constellation all over the world. Chef Gaggan at his eponymous Bangkok restaurant has a Michelin star, chef Vikas Khanna has a one-star restaurant in New York called Junoon, among several others. The last of this is chef Garima Arora of GAA in Bangkok, also incidentally the first female Indian chef till date to win the Michelin. (Read a candid interview with her here)

Is a Michelin star permanent?
No, Michelin stars aren’t permanent like an Oscar or a Grammy is. They are awarded every year. A restaurant can win a star one year, and lose it the next if it isn’t maintaining its standards as per the inspectors. Similarly, restaurants can also get demoted, meaning, win three stars one year and go down to a single star. It all depends on their performance and also, of course, the assessment.

Are all Michelin-star restaurants expensive?
A humble street stall can receive a Michelin star too!While being a fine-dining restaurant isn’t explicitly stated as a criterion for giving a restaurant a star, it is fair to say that most Michelin restaurants tend to be formal and pricey. Like most things, however, there are exceptions, especially with restaurants in Southeast Asia. The cheapest Michelin meal can be had at Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle (yes, quite a mouthful) in Singapore, which is actually a hawker stall in Chinatown Complex Food Centre (They have also expanded into a restaurant 2 minutes from the stall in 2018). The price to eat here? Less than USD $2.20. See a longer list of the cheapest Michelin star restaurants in the world here.


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