If you are looking to eat out, these days your first instinct might be a Google search of local ‘restaurants’ which will probably throw up the ubiquitous American-owned TripAdvisor or perhaps La Fourchette, a French site specialising in discounted meals if you book via them and which was taken over by TripAdvisor in 2014.
These offer the advantage of rankings and plenty of recent user reviews.
When it comes to physical guides, for something unpretentious, you might thumb through Le Routard or Le Petit Futé, guides to cities or areas which are produced respectively by roving travel writers or reports from locals and whose symbols are often seen displayed on doors of eateries, especially ones offering good local cuisine and value for money.
Moving upmarket there are gastronomic guides such as Hubert or Champérard and, the best known after Michelin, the Gault & Millau which has a rating system of one to five toques (chefs’ hats). One toque is a ‘good’ restaurant while five applies to a handful of rarefied venues graded by the guide’s inspectors at 19 or 20/20 (only Marc Veyrat, a molecular gastronomist from Haute-Savoie, has had the perfect 20/20). Gault & Millau, named after food critics who founded it in 1965, also selects a ‘cook of the year’.
Even so, the one accolade which still carries universal prestige in the culinary world is the Michelin star. This is a star logo shown next to hotels and restaurants listed in the annual red-covered Michelin Guide that are deemed to offer superb food. Top chefs are regularly referred to as un chef étoilé, a starred chef.
However, Michelin point out that this technically is incorrect – it is the restaurant which obtains a star not the chef and the rating remains even if the chef leaves. After all, says Michelin, ‘world-class meals are often the collective efforts of an entire team, not one man or woman alone’.
Michelin has a team of inspectors – it does not reveal how many – selected for their knowledge of gastronomy and ability to describe food in written reports which are then discussed at ‘star sessions’ several times a year by all the inspectors and the editorial team.
Inspectors visit anonymously all venues in the guide at least once every 18 months, and several times a year for starred ones.
It may seem odd for a tyre firm to rate food, but the guide started in 1900 as a freebie for Michelin customers (cyclists and early motorists) including information on rare garages and petrol stations and tips such as how to change a tyre. Later editions added hotels and restaurants.
On the basis that people value something more if they pay for it, it became paid-for and advert-free by the 1920s. Realising how popular the restaurant listings were, Michelin hired dedicated restaurant inspectors and in 1926 launched l’étoile de bonne table for fine dining restaurants. The current system of one to three stars dates from 1931.
Stars are sometimes called macarons, an unofficial term started by a journalist to avoid repeating ‘star’ in an article. It literally means ‘macaroon’ – a suitably gastronomic word – but can also mean a medal or rosette.
Today there are red guides for many countries and cities plus green ones which focus on places of cultural or natural interest.
Stars concern the quality of ‘what is on the plate’, and nothing else. A separate crossed knife and fork (couverts) rating indicates comfort and beauty of the venue and quality of service from one (‘quite comfortable’) to five (‘luxury in the traditional style’).
Since 1997 Michelin has also had the alternative ‘Bib Gourmand’ award shown in the guide with the head of their mascot, Bibendum ‘the Michelin Man’. It indicates a restaurant which, while probably not as swanky as a the typical ‘starred’ one (Michelin calls them bonnes petites tables) offers good quality and value, where you can eat a three-course menu for €33 or less (€37 in Paris). This year there are 644, including 105 new ones, and there is a separate Bib Gourmand France guide if you want to focus on those.
Finally since 2016 there is ‘The Plate’ for the rest of the listed restaurants, which must all use ‘fresh ingredients, capably prepared’.
While stars are prestigious, chefs sometimes complain of the stress associated with them and are reported to ‘give them back’. Guides director Michael Ellis, however, says this is an ‘urban myth’ and that a star is an opinion, not something you can return. But Michelin may agree to respect a wish not to be listed and Sébastien Bras of Le Suquet at Laguiole, Aveyron, which has had three stars since 1999 under his father Michel, asked for just this in January saying he wants “to have my mind free, without tension”, citing the pressure of knowing any one of 500 plates going out of the kitchen daily may be judged. Jérôme Brochot at the one-star Le France in Montceau-les-Mines also announced he wanted out. He found customers in the Burgundy town, which has high unemployment, could not afford his average prices of €75-95 required by the precision and fine ingredients and he was hoping for more diners by changing to less sophisticated cuisine.
What Michelin say the stars mean:
High-quality cooking; carefully-prepared meals of a consistently high standard. Traditionally described as ‘worth a stop’.
Excellent cooking showing personality and talent; expertly-crafted dishes which are refined, inspired and some times original. ‘Worth a detour’.
Superlative cooking by chefs at the peak of the profession; ingredients are exemplary, cooking is elevated to an art and chefs create dishes that often go on to become classics. ‘Worth a special journey’.
The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see www.perrytaylor.fr
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