Q&A: The history of restaurant Michelin stars

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're reaching for the stars…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about fancy restaurants.

A: Is it “why won’t they let me dine there?”

Q: Oh hardy ha ha. No, actually, it’s about stars.

A: Yes, they let stars dine there all the time. Good for business – they often reserve the special booth just for them.

Q: No, let me finish. I’m talking about “Michelin stars” – that pinnacle of excellence in the restaurant world. That thing all chefs desire.

A: Ah yes, those.

Q: I’d like to know how they came to be? Surely they have nothing to do with the tyre brand Michelin, do they?

A: …

Q: Wait. DO THEY?

A: They do indeed.

Q: Well now I’m even more intrigued. What do tyres have to do with dining?

A: It’s a fair question. And it all begins with two French brothers, Édouard and André Michelin. They began making removable pneumatic tyres for bicycles in 1891 after noticing how annoying it was to fix a flat one.

Q: So these Gauls rushed in where others feared to tread! Get it? Tread – as in tyres?

A: We got it. Anyway, their timing was impeccable with the rise of the automobile just around the corner – they’ve been a big name in tyres ever since.

Q: You haven’t explained the dining link yet!

A: Ah yes. Good point. You see, to understand the stars, you first need to be introduced to the ‘Michelin Guides’.

Q: The Michelin Guides?

A: That’s it. 

Q: Do they sell cookies?

A: No, they’re not people – they’re motoring guidebooks, introduced by Michelin in 1900. 

Q: Why get into the publishing game?

A: It was rather clever really. At the time, there were fewer than 3000 cars on the road in France – and the brothers Michelin wanted to increase demand for cars, and therefore tyres. They did this by making motoring easier.

Q: How could a book do that?

A: You forget what a scary new world it was for a motorist running this rumbling contraption across the countryside. The Michelin guides would include maps as well as listing places to stay, refuel and even repair instructions if they got a flat tyre.

Q: Okay, I suppose that is handy.

A: And even better – they gave thousands of them away for free. This ingenious marketing move put Michelin in the glovebox of every car across France (and surrounding nations including Great Britain) at the beginning of the 20th century.

Q: Clever boys! But it still doesn’t get us to the dining.

A: It’s coming. By the 1920s, in an effort to create a more respected publication, the brothers began charging for the guide and making a few editorial changes. One of those was to expand the restaurant section – a move that was popular with guidebook owners.

Q: Travelling is hungry work.

A: It is. Initially the guide categorised restaurants by type – but later a team of mystery diners were employed to rate the quality of the meal on offer.

Q: Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere. A star is born!

A: Haha. At this point it’s worth pointing out that Michelin didn’t invent the idea of using stars in a travel context. Travel guides themselves had been around since the likes of Murrays (UK) and Baedeker (Germany) began theirs back in the 1830s. It was Baedeker that would give out the first stars to attractions and hotels starting in 1844.

Q: And Michelin awarded stars to restaurants?

A: That’s right – for fine-dining establishments, starting in 1926. It took them about a decade to perfect the system, but by the late 1930s, one Michelin star was noted as ‘a very good restaurant in its category’ – worthy of a stop if you happened to be on your way past.

Q: And two stars?

A: In the context of the travel guide, this was ‘excellent cooking – worth a detour’. They literally wanted you to go out of your way to seek out this menu.

Q: Three stars?

A: Well, this was the top rating, noted as ‘exceptional cuisine – worth a special journey.’

Q: Destination dining!

A: Yep. Today the stars (1, 2 or 3) continue to be awarded annually and have expanded to include many European countries, Japan and the US among others.

Q: Australia?

A: No. Remember, the stars continue to be linked to the Michelin Guides, and as of 2024, Michelin does not publish travel guides for Australia, despite the fact you can easily purchase their tyres here.

Q: I’m sure some would be good enough to win stars.

A: Oh, absolutely! It’s purely due to a lack of guide presence that they don’t. The closest thing Australia has is the Good Food Guide ‘hat’ system – awarded in a similar way.

Q: So the most stars you can win is three? I’m sure I’ve heard of more.

A: Well, that’s the chef thing. You see, the most an individual restaurant can win is three, however a chef may have their fingers in a bunch of fennel, pork and saffron pies – winning multiple stars for multiple restaurants.

Q: Who has the most?

A: The late chef Joel Robuchon oversaw a total of 31 stars over his career. It is however important to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘Michelin-starred chef’. It is the restaurant that wins them, not the chef. The rest is just PR fluff (on a crumb of cacao and juniper).

Q: Finally, why was the Michelin Man in Ghostbusters?

A: He wasn’t. The Michelin Man was a white mascot made up of tyres and first introduced in 1898. He was however part inspiration (along with the Pillsbury Doughboy and Angelus Marshmallow) for Dan Ackroyd’s fictional ‘Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’ – the large mascot that comes to life and terrorises New York in the original 1984 Ghostbusters movie.

Q: Love that film. Five stars!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

 

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