The Michelin Guide.
The Michelin Guide.
Image: Getty Images / Frederic Stevens

In the late 19th century in France, when motorcars had just started to become fashionable, brothers André and Édouard Michelin had the bright idea of starting a tyre business.

The problem was fewer than 3,000 people in the country owned cars, so demand for the Michelin brothers’ product was somewhat limited. Not men to be defeated by the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of mathematics, they hit on an idea to entice motorists to make longer trips, which would wear out their tyres faster, increasing sales of their products.

They did this by publishing a road guide that gave motorists information on places to stay, things to see and food to eat outside the metropoles and off the beaten track in the French countryside. The Michelin Guide, which was initially offered free to motorists, had the desired effect – French people drove many kilometres in pursuit of André and Edouard’s recommendations and the brothers were only too happy to provide them with tyres for the journey.

French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide, a decision many speculated was the result of learning that his third Michelin star was about to be rescinded

Within two decades, the Michelin Guide had become the ultimate guide on where to eat in France and had introduced a star rating system for restaurants which grew to be the most famous and coveted accolade in the culinary world. Today, there are Michelin-starred restaurants across the globe - a recognition of cooking excellence.

In 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide, a decision many speculated was the result of learning that his third Michelin star was about to be rescinded. At the time, Loiseau’s death was a tragic indication of the value of the stars to the health and wealth of establishments. But these days it seems Michelin has lost touch with the dining habits and tastes of food lovers and food creators in the increasingly chop-and-change 21st century.

Traditionally, stars are awarded to restaurants, not chefs, and if a chef wishes to change a menu or spice things up, the stars previously awarded are no longer applicable and must be re-earned. Other awards, such as the World’s 50 Best List and the James Beard Awards, have become more sought after and seem to better indicate the tastes of the era than the increasingly stodgy pat on the back offered by Michelin and Bib Gourmand (the company’s nickname for its famous mascot, the Michelin Man).

Michelin has tried to spruce up its image by making open calls for applications for people to join the ranks of its famous, secretive and anonymous army of inspectors but this doesn’t seem to be helping.  Restaurants such as Noma in Denmark – which is a frequent winner of the World’s 50 Best list – still only have two Michelin stars. The company has been accused of showing bias towards French restaurants, giving more generously in countries where tourism boards have paid them for starring their restaurants, shirking from rewarding the efforts of women and chefs of colour and failing to satisfactorily define what constitutes a restaurant.

The decline of Michelin is reflected in increasing reports of chefs around the world wanting to give back their stars. They increasingly feel the stars are stifling, rather than inspiring, and that accolades such as the World’s 50 Best are more in tune with the current tastes of diners and food creators.

The days of a chef putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger at news of the loss of a Michelin star seem to be over and, with those who make the world’s best food losing the desire to acquire the nod from Michelin, it seems unless the company makes drastic changes to its evaluation policies, it’s not going to make the grade.

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