Every autumn, Michelin releases its UK index – and the restaurant industry either sighs of relief or shrugs in indifference. For some, they're a cause of celebration; others – with frustration – regard them as an increasing irrelevance.
This year's list will be revealed at Waterloo’s BFI IMAX cinema on October 1, where winners will be announced live before the official guide is published on Friday October 5.
It is always an event and this year won't be any different. Already the news cycle is ready: Marco Pierre White made headlines recently for 'banning' Michelin inspectors from his new restaurant in Singapore, telling Channel NewsAsia: "I don’t need Michelin and they don’t need me. They sell tyres and I sell food."
According to Pierre White, the guide wrote to him "asking if I'd like to be included" and he demurred.
It is unlikely. Michelin are famously keen on discretion and inspectors dine anonymously. Additionally, the other story which Pierre White is often tied to – that he had 'handed back' his stars – is untrue, too. The stars are not physical, they are a form of criticism and cannot be rejected any more or less than a write-up from Fay Maschler could be. There is only one exception to this, detailed below.
Despite Pierre White's disparaging remarks, the Michelin guide is still something like the Oscars of the food world. Despite being a household name, there’s still plenty of confusion surrounding it. We’ve rounded up some of the rumours to separate fact from fiction.
"The Michelin Guide rates chefs"
Michelin consider restaurants and claim to judge "what's on the plate and only what's on the plate".
Their five criteria are: quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in their cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits.
Though it is the restaurants who are awarded the stars, a chef leaving or a menu change may well be enough for Michelin to revoke a star or, indeed, to award one. The intrinsic relationship between the chef and what's on a plate is usually why it's common to hear chatter of "Michelin-starred chefs", even though individuals do not receive them.
The exact criteria of what earns the accolade is vague – and even slightly, thrillingly uncertain. One rumour says a place can't get two stars unless there's a sofa in the bar, but this is patently untrue. Take the Araki in Mayfair, which has three stars, nine seats, no sofa.
Incidentally, restaurant decor was long thought to factor in Michelin's decisions with, for a time, white tablecloths thought to be a must. Given Signapore's Hawker Chan won a star in 2016 for his Singapore street food, it's not likely. Restaurant critic Andy Hayler, who has eaten at 126 restaurants with three stars, points out that Sushi Saito has top marks despite serving food "at a wooden counter within a multi-storey car park".
So, the cooking takes centre stage during an inspection but atmosphere, service and comfort make an important supporting cast. To reflect this, Michelin classify restaurant using “covers”, a crossed knife and fork indicating how comfortable a place is on a scale of one to five.
"Michelin only do fine dining"
From the outside, the guide is generally considered a compendium of fine dining, but Michelin themselves work from a different basic premise. The reference to travelling comes from the guide's origins – when the Michelin brothers Édouard and André first wrote it in 1900, their hope was that it would encourage drivers to travel farther afield — and buy more tyres accordingly. The three star ranking has been used continually since 1931, with the guidelines below outlined in 1936.
One star: Very good cooking in its category.
Two stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour.
Three stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.
This doesn't, however, mention anything about fine dining or formality – as Hawker Chan's spot makes clear. Closer to home, in Whitstable, the Sportsman pub – an a very lovely pub but a pub all the same – has held at star for more than decade. Skye Gyngell famously quit the Petersham Nurseries Cafe in Richmond in 2012, a year after being awarded a star. "People have certain expectations of a Michelin restaurant but we don't have cloths on the tables and our service isn't very formal," she said at the time, "You know, if you're used to eating at Marcus Wareing then they feel let down when they come here."
Besides the stars themselves, there's also the Bib Gourmand, which recognises "small, charming restaurants" serving good food an affordable prices – in the UK, this is thought to be two courses with wine for around £28 a head. That said, just because a restaurant is cheap, doesn't mean it will get a Bib rather than anything else; a set lunch at São Paulo's Tuju costs just £17.50, but the place has two stars. In Marlow, two hours out of London, Tom Kerridge's upscale pub The Coach has one, and an awful lot of the menu comes in at under £10. Read our round-up of all the cheapest Michelin starred meals across the world. If you're curious, the Bib in Bib Gourmand is a nod to Bibendum, the official name of the Michelin Man. The 2019 Bib Gourmands have already been announced.
London’s Michelin star offerings remain on the expensive side, with 70 restaurants currently on the list, including A.Wong, The Ritz and Clove Club. Read our full list of Michelin star restaurants in London.
Finally, there is the Michelin Plate. Judged on similar grounds to the stars and the Bib Gourmands, the Plates are a nod to places that have been recognised but are yet to earn one of the other awards. Typically, these appear at very casual places – a pizzeria like Naples' 50 Kalò, for instance (of which there's now one in London).
"A Michelin star lasts a lifetime"
A Michelin star is not for life. If restaurants close during the year or do not maintain the standards for which they achieved their star(s) they will not make it into the next annual edition of the guide.
Though certain chefs have spoken of handing back their stars they instead lose them, albeit on purpose. Changing a menu is one way to do this. There is only one exception to this, which occurred at the start of this year. After speaking with Sebastian Bras of Le Suquet, who had held three stars for 18 years, Michelin for the first time ever did not include him, on request. Bras had spoken out publicly of struggling to keep up with the pressure of being in the book.
A Michelin recommendation does not guarantee a lifetime of success, either. Sadly, Chelsea's high-end Indian Vineet Bhatia (VBL) closed last year just one week after it picked up a star.
"All chefs know the criteria for a Michelin star"
A Michelin star is a perplexing badge of honour — mainly because nobody can quite pinpoint what exactly is needed to get one. Even top chefs dispute the key components because officials have remained so tight-lipped on the details. That said, all the Michelin twitter accounts regularly write about where they've been and what they've eaten, which must be an indication of what is presently impressing.
It's this public ambiguity which gives Michelin a mixed reputation in the industry: the ranking brings with it tremendous pressure, in part because paying customers may expect too much from the Michelin association.
Creativity plays an important part in the two and three-star assignments. To achieve this, the restaurants need something that sets the dining experience apart from other establishments — think Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
Michelin's creativity is likely constantly adapting, to embrace the ever-changing food world — though the guide often comes under fire for being slow to jump on new trends. However, it is said they consider new places on recommendation. Perhaps a tweet can change something, after all?
There is also some controversy over whether the Michelin standards are the same the world over. Officially, they are, but this is not just unlikely but also probably an impossibility. Incidentally, Michelin don't write up restaurants all across the globe: most of America and Asia is missed, as is all of India and Africa.
"Michelin stars are the highest honour for a chef"
Not everyone wants a star and not everyone sees them as the highest accolade going.
"The only people who really care about Michelin stars in New York are French guys… We could live without it quite nicely" the late Anthony Bourdain once told Vanity Fair. At a supper last week in the Covent Garden's new NY import RedFarm, owner Ed Schoenfeld was recounting his various successes during his long career, which has involved opening 55 restaurants. "We've had Michelin" he told the Standard, "We've had better than Michelin – we've had four stars from the New York Times." Perspective is everything.
The guide is also a frequent target for criticism. In 2004, former Michelin inspector Pascal Remy caused ripples of surprise ahead of the launch of his book L'inspecteur se met à table. Remy had worked for Michelin for 16 years and claimed only five full time inspectors toured France, meaning some restaurants were scrutinised only once every 30 months. Michelin disputed the claim, insisting visits tend to be an average of 18 months apart while noting that three star restaurants are usually visited multiple times a year to ensure consistency – as often as a dozen times over 12 months. Remy also criticised the guide for favouritism, an accusation that has been levelled at it many times over the years.
Nevertheless, the guide is still extraordinarily well regarded and clearly matters to many. Gordon Ramsay famously declared that having stars taken away was like "losing a girlfriend", while in New York, staff at Manhatten's Daniel "cried for one day" when their third star was revoked. Alain Ducasse telephones the board personally. More importantly, though, it has become a byword for quality, for restaurants worth going to.
"Michelin guide inspectors are easy to spot"
The identities of Michelin inspectors are confidential, to ensure that their visits are carried out anonymously.
It is true inspectors will chat with chefs and restaurant managers, sometimes asking for them at the end of a meal. Officially, the only time inspectors may reveal their position is to gain up-to-date information. Either way, once they have been identified, they're no longer able to review the sites again.
In truth, some restaurants will always try to guess who is who and accommodate accordingly. This is where the pressure comes from, from not knowing, from worrying, from trying to met expectations that are ill-defined. This is what makes the guide worth trusting, too: a place must be reliably good; there can be no off days and consistency is everything. It is an unrelenting standard that some find unfair – but then, that's why it remains the most important food guide in the world.