9 things to know about the Michelin Guide, the Oscars for restaurants

(From left) Ms Melissa Ow, Mr Michael Ellis, and Ms Michelle Ling, at the press conference to announce Singapore's Michelin Guide which will be launched in 2016.
(From left) Ms Melissa Ow, Mr Michael Ellis, and Ms Michelle Ling, at the press conference to announce Singapore's Michelin Guide which will be launched in 2016. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

SINGAPORE - The Michelin Guide, long regarded as the world's foremost authority of culinary merit, is set to put out a Singapore edition in 2016.

This will be the first time a South-east Asian country gets its own guide. And Singapore will be the fourth country in Asia - after Japan, Hong Kong and Macau - to earn the distinction.

Here are seven things to know about the series, dubbed the "Oscars" for restaurants, that is both respected and sometimes reviled in the world of dining.

1. It has its origins in a promotional giveaway by a French tyre company

Well-known company Michelin, opened by brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin, first hit upon the idea to distribute free maps to French motorists in 1900, in a bid to boost demands for its tyres.

As the guide's popularity grew, the company started to produce guides to other countries and realised the restaurants section was by far the most well-received.

Michelin then decided to hire inspectors to rate and critique restaurants. These inspectors go to great lengths to maintain their anonymity so as to boost the credibility of the guide. Pascal Remy was fired after 16 years of service as an inspector when he announced plans to publish a tell-all book in 2004.

2. No one knows exactly how many inspectors Michelin has

For a guide that covers 23 countries across three continents, the actual number of inspectors in Michelin's employ is shrouded in secrecy. That figure has been touted to be more than a hundred strong.

Remy's book, L'Inspecteur Se Met A Table (which translates literally into The Inspector Sits Down At The Table), alleges that there were only five inspectors in France when he was fired - a notable disparity from the 21 Michelin claimed to have.

For the Singapore guide, Michelin is calling on an international group of inspectors hailing from Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, Britain and Spain.

3. The star rating system is the apex of the guide

Known also as the Red Bible, the guide awards restaurants between one and three stars, with the maximum three considered the holy grail and ultimate accolade for chefs.

It is the best known and most highly respected of all restaurant ratings. One star denotes a very good restaurant, two signifies excellent cooking that warrants a detour, and three represents exceptional cuisine that is worthy of a special journey.

The quality of the food is the primary factor - the five criteria a dish is judged on are the quality of ingredients; skills in preparation and combination of flavours; level of creativity; value for money; and consistency in cookery.

4. It has become an obsession for high-profile chefs

Chefs and critics have long castigated the rating system, which many feel they have become captive to.

In 2003, well-known French chef Bernard Loiseau, who was 52 then, committed suicide by firing a shotgun into his mouth amid rumours in the press that his restaurant was about to lose its prized three-star status.

British chef Gordon Ramsay famously said he wept when his New York restaurant - Gordon Ramsay At The London - lost its two stars in 2013.

A recent film, Burnt, stars Bradley Cooper as a down-and-out chef aiming to obtain his third Michelin star and highlights the pressure involved in achieving it.

5. Other ratings besides stars

A category called Bib Gourmand ("Bib" is short for "bibendum", the company's nickname for the iconic Michelin Man), was introduced in 1955 to highlight restaurants that offer exceptional good food at moderate prices. The prices are rated and pegged to each country's economic status.

A fork and spoon rating is given to every restaurant, which is a reflection of the restaurant's overall comfort and decor. This ranges from one to five "fork and spoons", with one signifying "comfortable" and five denoting "luxurious".

A variety of symbols can also be appended next to a restaurant's listing. For instance, a black dot means the restaurant boasts a spectacular view, while a cocktail glass indicates an interesting drinks list.

6. Controversies have plagued the guide over the years

Allegations that the guide favours French cuisine above others has been a perennial bugbear. There is also criticism that the guide is outmoded as it rigidly conforms to a too-formal standard of fine dining.

When the guide made its first foray into Japan in 2007, Tokyo was controversially awarded more stars - a whopping 191 stars to 150 restaurants - than Paris. Many felt the firm was pandering to Tokyo in order for its parent company to gain a business foothold in the country.

7. Tokyo is the food capital of the world, says the Michelin guide

At last count, there are 226 Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo, way ahead of Paris at just 94. However, the Tokyo list is not solely dominated by Japanese cuisine - at least 50 French restaurants there have been awarded a star each.

Renowned French chef Joel Robuchon, who has two restaurants in Singapore, is currently the most decorated chef with 25 stars (his record is 28), with compatriot Alain Ducasse not far behind at 21.

Ramsay, having garnered 16 stars at his peak, is down to seven. Another British chef, Heston Blumenthal, holds six stars, with his three-starred restaurant The Fat Duck widely thought to be one of the best restaurants in the world.

8. Michelin maps were used by the Allies to navigate around France in World War II

The Michelin Guide serves as a comprehensive food guide now but few would know that the initial Michelin maps, released by the French tyre company in 1900, proved to be very useful in helping the Allies navigate around France during World War II.

The Allies encountered a roadblock when drafting a plan to invade Normandy in early 1944 – finding their way around the countryside would be difficult due to Germany’s destruction of signage in France, Food & Wine magazine reported.

These maps were comprehensive and precise and contained details accumulated by Michelin critics. Hence, the US government sought to reprint the 1939 edition of The Guide, which was the latest since publication discontinued during the war.

The Allies were thus well-equipped when they navigated around Normandy on June 6, 1944 and for the rest of the war – with the aid of this detailed red guide.  

9. Stars are awarded to the restaurants and not the chefs

Although Michelin stars matter a lot to chefs – with many working tirelessly to achieve this coveted form of recognition – they are actually awarded to, and associated with, the restaurants, and not individual chefs.

This means that even if a renowned chef leaves, the restaurant can still keep its Michelin stars.

“Stars are not given to a chef,” international director of Michelin guides Michael Ellis told Vanity Fair magazine, “it’s not like an Oscar—it’s not a physical thing. It’s really an opinion. It’s recognition.”

But a restaurant can lose its stars when the Guide gets updated and its inspectors decide that an eatery has not lived up to expectations. 

Sources: CNN, Food & Wine magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal