In case you don’t know Gordon Ramsay, he can be seen on television shows like Master Chef US, Master Chef Junior, Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, and Hotel Hell. But unlike your typical cooking show chefs, Gordon has a justifiable claim to being one of the world’s top chefs. Gordon Ramsay currently has 7 Michelin stars under his belt (he used to have 16), and holds the record for London’s longest-running 3-Michelin star restaurant. But what do these stars mean? And why does the word Michelin remind us of tires?
In 1900 the brothers Édouard and André Michelin, owners of the newly established Michelin tire company published a guide the would help french motorist get around and at the same time boost sales for their tire company. They thought that if they included recommended places to visit and restaurants to dine in, people would be encouraged to travel more in their vehicles and subsequently wear out their tires more quickly. Almost 35,000 copies of this first, free edition of the guide were distributed. It included maps, tire repair and replacement instructions, car mechanics listings, hotels, and petrol stations throughout France. Since only people with a fair amount of wealth could afford an automobile at the time, the guide was initially intended for this specific demographic. The result was a selective and elitist standard of choosing what to include in the guide.
Several changes were made to the guide after World War I. After seeing old copies of the guide being used to prop up a workbench, André Michelin decided to charge a price for the guide following the principle "man only truly respects what he pays for". And in recognizing the growing popularity of the restaurant section of the guide, the brothers recruited a team of inspectors to visit and review restaurants anonymously.
It was only until 1926 that they began awarding stars to fine dining establishments, initially marking them with a single star. After 5 years, they introduced the one, two, and three-star rankings with the latter given to the very best. Finally, in 1936, the criteria for the starred rankings were published. One star would mean “A very good restaurant in its category”, two stars “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”, and 3 stars “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”.
They say that being awarded a Michelin Star has the same level of prestige and recognition as winning an Oscar, and can boost restaurant sales by 10-20%. But why do people trust a guide made by a tire company? How did it become an authority that its ratings are so highly valued by chefs?
One consideration would be its consistency on a strict exclusive selection process carried out by 120 anonymous inspectors worldwide. Michelin goes through extraordinary lengths to maintain this anonymity. The inspectors are not allowed to disclose who they are at any point while working. They are also prohibited from talking to journalists and even advised not to tell friends or family about their employment. It also helps that these inspectors are food critics and former chefs.
Another reason is the company’s long history and reputation. Michelin survived two World Wars and multiple recessions throughout its 130 years of existence. The company never gave up on the guide as a marketing tool making it one of the most well-known guides in the world. The profitability was never a concern and in turn, the company could afford to focus on the quality that other guides couldn’t. The maps on the guide are some of the best in the world. It was so well made that it was even given to and use by British and American troops during World War II.
The popularity and exclusivity of the Michelin Guide made its recognition a requisite in the culinary world. It was a guaranteed way to make your restaurant stand out among thousands of others, which is why the stars became a valuable and sought-after award by restaurants and chefs.
On 24 February 2003 French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide, shooting himself in the head with a shotgun after a full day of work in his kitchen. The French restaurant guide Gault Millau had recently downgraded his restaurant rating from 19/20 to 17/20 and there were also rumors in the French newspaper Le Figaro that the Michelin Guide was planning to remove one of his restaurant’s three Michelin stars. Loiseau spent 17 years in his restaurant La Côte d'Or achieving his goal of becoming a three-star chef. After his death, three-star chef Jacques Lameloise said Loiseau had once confided, "If I lose a star, I'll kill myself".
A Michelin star might be the ultimate culinary accolade, but for some in the culinary world, the award is more of a burden than an honor to have. Several chefs have handed back their Michelin stars in the past few years. Marco Pierre White was the youngest chef to achieve three stars at the age of 32. He also somehow started the trend of giving back the award by renouncing his stars five years after it was given. He told The Guardian “The people who gave me Michelin stars had less knowledge than me. You have to place a value on something that is given to you: that’s why it was so easy for me to walk away. They had no value for me.”.
"Michelin guide is a cruel system. It's the cruelest test in the world. It forces the chefs to work around a year waiting for a test. They don't know when it's coming." - Chef Eo Yun-gwon
More and more chefs are realizing that they can cook without the pressure, without being overstressed, and without being overworked. The pressure to gain just a star on your resume is so high that it drives some chefs into depression. And while earning a Michelin star is a feat in itself, maintaining it is another story and requires continuous investment, reinvention, and an endless quest for perfection.
"When you have your three Michelin stars, you're fighting to keep the Michelin star. You cook for the three Michelin stars, you're not necessarily focused on your customer, because what matters is your Michelin star."
Gordon Ramsay has expressed his displeasure with chefs who don’t take their Michelin Stars seriously by returning the award back or not accepting them at all, criticizing them for not being able to take the pressure of the industry. He reiterated that the restaurant business is a team effort and everyone misses out by not recognizing the award. Ramsay said in an interview, “I started crying when I lost my stars. It’s a very emotional thing for any chef. It’s like losing a girlfriend. You want her back.”.