A Peek Behind the Michelin Guides

ABC ran an interesting piece on the famed Michelin Guides. (See the clip above.)

Here are a few noteworthy highlights:

- "The Michelin rating began in France in 1900 as a marketing gimmick to sell tires. The Michelin brothers thought their customers would burn more rubber if given a list of hotels and restaurants to explore."

- The guide is based on a maximum 3 star rating. 2 stars: worth a detour; 3 stars: worth a special journey

- Michelin Guides cover 23 countries.

- Out of 45,000 restaurants profiled, only 100 restaurants hold the coveted three stars. As of this writing, 9 of them are in the United States.

- Tokyo has more 3 star restaurants than Paris. Why? Michelin Guide director Jean Luc Naret says it comes down to numbers. There are 15,000 restaurants in Paris. Tokyo, on the other hand, boasts more than 160,000 restaurants.

- What's the background of a typical Michelin Guide inspector? It's no surprise. "Most of them have gone to culinary school or perhaps hospitality school," Naret explained. "All of them have worked in a restaurant as professional chef or in a hotel in food and beverage and, most importantly, all of them are passionate, almost obsessive foodies."

- The Michelin Guide inspector profiled anonymously in this piece eats out an average of 9 times a week, usually alone. "It gives us the ability to really focus on the food and the ambiance and capture the entire experience."

- No notes are taken at the table. After a meal, this inspector takes 2 to 3 hours, writing an extensive report from memory.

- Do inspectors taste food differently than most of us? "We have taste memories because we've eaten thousands of the same thing over and over and over again," she said. "[It] gives you a bit of a measurement to know if this is a good or less good version of something."

- "We're looking for the best in show."

- Naret explains, "There's no different type of cuisine. There's only two types -- the good one and the bad one. We only recommend the good one."

According to the Michelin Guide website, the inspection method involves seven key components. Let's take a look at two:

At the restaurant

"When dining in a restaurant, we try to be as discreet as possible. We dress appropriately and order a complete meal, being sure to observe those items that may be specialties of the chef or cuisine. Many senses come into play during a great meal, and with trained eyes we can evaluate a number of aspects about the cuisine. Does the food’s plating stimulate the palate and is the portion size appropriate? Do the aromas of the dish please and entice, or overwhelm and repulse? Even sound comes into play with a delightful crunch of an item. Whose curiosity isn’t piqued when a sizzling plate is presented to a nearby table? We like flavors to be pronounced or subtle, depending on the circumstance. And there is also the question of value: is our level of enjoyment relative to the price of our meal?"

Star consideration

"People often ask what the qualifications are for a restaurant to be awarded a star. Establishments under “star consideration” serve cuisine that is prepared from excellent quality ingredients, display impressive technical skill, and present a balanced menu of clear flavors with a distinct personality; and it is imperative that they do so consistently. In addition to the menu and cuisine, we also scrutinize the beverage program asking ourselves if the wine, cocktail, and/or sake selection enhances the experience and moreover offers something special."