A short history of the Michelin Guide: How the Michelin tyre company founded a foodie guide

The Michelin Guide, that red Bible prized by gourmands the world over, is due to offer its take on Singapore's food offerings in July.

Singapore is the first Southeast Asian country to get its own guide although the Michelin Guide has already made pitstops at three other Asian destinations. Macau was first featured in 2009, Hong Kong's guide went local with street food offerings in the same year and Japan made waves with a record 261 stars in 2010.

While the Guide is now often considered the authoritative voice of dining, the Michelin Guide was started by a tyre company as, essentially, a marketing tactic to sell tyres. Sounds oddball? Not really, when you dive into the history of the Michelin company.

Andre and Edouard Michelin were brothers who ran a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand, France. They produced tyres for bicycles and cars. But at the turn of the 20th century, cars were a rich man's indulgence rather than an affordable form of mass transport.

The target demographic of the tyre can be seen in the company's mascot, the Bibendum.


An early poster for the Michelin company. The tagline declares that Michelin tyres drink up obstacles. PHOTO: WWW.MICHELIN.COM

Inspired by a stack of tyres, the Bibendum mascot in his first iteration, as drawn by French cartoonist Marius Roussillon, sported a pince-nez, chomped on a cigar and waved around a glass of champagne. The portly figure and his accessories reflected the wealthy businessmen who were often the only ones who could afford a car.

The Michelin brothers dreamt up the Michelin Guide in 1900 as a customer service tool as well as a marketing ploy.


The Michelin Guide covers were originally blue. The signature red cover was introduced in 1931.

The early guides were practical and contained loads of useful information for drivers. The guides offered advice ranging from instructions for changing a tyre and where to buy gasoline (at selected pharmacies since petrol stations were as yet unknown) to listings for hotels and restaurants. Interestingly enough, the restaurants were simply listed, but not yet reviewed and rated.

The idea was to encourage drivers to go out on the road (and wear out tyres, leading to the need to buy more tyres).

For 20 years, the Michelin Guide was a freebie, distributed by the company as a marketing gimmick. But in 1920, the company began to charge seven francs for each guide, partly because the guides were being used for all sorts of other purposes, from propping up workbenches to serving as emergency toilet paper.

By then however the Guide had become so useful that people willingly paid for it. In that first year, nearly 100,000 copies were sold.

The ratings system for restaurants was first introduced in 1926, when good quality restaurants were given a single star. This system was further refined in 1931 when the now-famous three-star system was introduced. One star represents very good cooking in its category, two stars means the restaurant is worth a detour while three stars indicated an exceptional restaurant that is a destination unto itself. That same year, the Michelin Guide also changed the colour of its cover - from blue to its now signature red.

By the 1930s, cars were more common and the guide's contents had shifted gradually to focus on dining as affluent middle class car owners began driving more for travel and recreation.

Once the Michelin Guide expanded its restaurants section, it began to employ "inspectors" to rate restaurants. These inspectors, performing their work anonymously, have become legendary. In the early years, they were often retired chefs themselves.

 

There is an intriguing titbit about a crucial role the Guide played in World War II. The last Michelin published before the war broke out was in 1939. And the Allied forces, when planning the Normandy landings, reprinted the 1939 edition because its maps helped soldiers navigate Nazi-occupied France where road signs had been destroyed. 

The Guide earned a devoted following, with readers writing in to point out errors and improve its accuracy. It also expanded beyond France to cover other European countries and tourists came to rely on it for guidance. Time magazine called it the "tourist's Bible" in 1952.

Its popularity led the company to spin off other publications. In 1926, there were the Green Guides, travel guides for a particular region, similar to today's Lonely Planet guides.

The Michelin Guide has also evolved. In 1997, it introduced the Bib Gourmand. This was a more mass market indicator. Restaurants offering a good fixed price, three-course meal (US$40 in America) was marked with the symbol of the Bidendum licking his lips.

Besides restaurant ratings, the Michelin Guide now also includes other recommendations, such as the Notable Wine List, the Notable Sake List, and the Notable Cocktail List.

Today, the Guide has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and it now covers more than 40,000 restaurants across three continents.

But the little red book has also sparked controversy in its long history.

Its influence is so wide-ranging that star ratings have become a serious stress issue for chefs.

In 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself following speculation that he could lose his restaurant's three stars. Loiseau had told Jacques Laimelose, former owner of three-star restaurant Maison Laimelose, "If I lose a star I'll kill myself."

Loiseau's suicide cast media spotlight on the pressure of retaining the Michelin stars, and highlighted the amount of worth and weight each star carries.

Even the redoubtable chef Gordon Ramsay, infamously foul-mouthed and abrasive, cried when his restaurant The London was stripped of its two-star rating.

However, in a rare interview with the press in 2005, Edouard Michelin, great-grandson of the co-founder and managing director of the Michelin Group, defended the guide saying: "We are not the makers or breakers of chefs."

He added that the role of the Michelin Guide was to provide a stimulating restaurant guide: "We are open to any improvements. But if we give more guidelines, then we would become consultants."

The Guide's entry to Asia took a century, but was also greeted with both celebration and skepticism. There was joy that Asia's culinary traditions were finally getting their due recognition, but also skepticism that the Guide's inspectors would be au fait with the intricacies of Japanese cooking or the finer points of Hong Kong street food.

Tokyo's record number of Michelin stars were greeted with objections in the West, with critics saying that the guides were too lenient with Japanese restaurants.


Hong Kong's Tim Ho Wan restaurant, the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world. FILE PHOTO: BUSINESS TIMES

When the Guide tackled street food for the first time with its Hong Kong entry in 2009, the acknowledgement came as a mixed blessing for the small family-run eateries that won Michelin notice. BBC.com reported on the "Michelin curse" as some of the Michelin-featured eateries were slapped with enormous rent increases from landlords looking to cash in on the hype.

Local foodies too were skeptical of the Guide's ability to judge good street food. That same concern has been raised with Singapore's Michelin Guide, which is likely to include hawker food, that Singaporean staple that local foodies spend endless hours arguing over and queueing up to sample.

But what all this hype adds up to is worldwide recognition of a country's culinary culture.

Singaporeans already know our food is world class. Now the rest of the world will learn it too.

- Additional reporting by Jasmine Loke