Every year in winter, Michelin releases its guide and the tremors are left all over the restaurant industry. While some celebrate others shrug in indifference. This year Dubai based Indian restaurant Trèsind Studio and Hong Kong-based CHAAT bagged one star each. The Michelin Guide remains the gold standard for chefs, and despite criticism for the guide’s French-favouring bias, it is still the accolade that chefs all over the world aspire to win. The coveted star can change a restaurant’s fortunes and secure its future, making sure that there will be a unrelenting interest on the part of the public. “The Michelin Guide is arguably the world’s most prestigious restaurant guide, recognised by the hospitality industry, chefs and foodies all over the world. To be awarded a Michelin Star is an outstanding achievement, bringing about recognition for the whole restaurant team’s hard work,” confirms chef and restaurateur Atul Kochhar who led and opened Tamarind an Indian cuisine restaurant which received its first Michelin star in 2001. His restaurant Benares in London’s Mayfair earned a second Michelin star in 2007.
The complex History Of The Michelin Star
Michelin Guide, which is owned by the tyre company of the same name originated in France in 1889. The company initially began publishing travel guides for people driving in Europe. Founding brothers Andre and Edouard of Michelin tyre company wanted the then limited number of drivers to make more journeys, and hence buy more tyres. The guide included information on where to find the best meals while touring. Some restaurants would get special mentions.
The concept gained immense popularity and the company assembled a team of experts to conduct anonymous reviews of restaurants and rate them on a 3-category basis. The same rating system still exists today. As per the Michelin Guide, one star is given to a “very good restaurant”, two stars are for “excellent cooking that is worth a detour”, and three stars are awarded to restaurants with “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey.” The Michelin Guide also includes restaurants that haven’t been awarded Stars, but are still recommended for the quality of their food.
The Michelin Microscope
The methods of Michelin Guide inspectors are notoriously opaque, and the finer details about how stars are awarded are not freely available. According to the Michelin website the assessment criteria used to rate restaurants 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. “Michelin hasn’t specified their exact criteria for handing out stars, but until around 10 years ago, the Guide seemed to have a very clear blueprint when it came to awarding stars. Many Michelin-starred restaurants were high-end places with a formal (or at least semi-formal) atmosphere alongside exceptional food. The food still needs to be outstanding, as does the service, but the exact rules seem to be always changing to keep with these changing times and Michelin are doing a good job of remaining current,” explains Kochhar.
Despite being a household name, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the guide. The biggest one being: Michelin Guide rates chefs. The fact is the star is never allotted to individuals. That means even chefs like Alain Ducasse, the chef with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, is not actually a 'Michelin-starred chef' because the term doesn’t technically exist under the Michelin guidelines. It is the restaurants that are awarded the stars. That’s because it’s a team effort believes chef Himanshu Saini who helms Trèsind and Trèsind Studio in Dubai. The latter is the only Indian restaurant to win a Michelin star in the first-ever list published by the restaurant guide for Dubai in 2022. “Getting a star is not an easy task, it is the result of hard work, dedication, and the creativity of the entire Tresind Studio team. It’s not just what’s on the plate that matters. The entire experience has to be one of a kind and for that, every team from housekeeping to the service has to work in perfect harmony.”
According to Manav Tuli, chef de cuisine of CHAAT, a great team that shares the same goal and beliefs is crucial to winning the star as also support from suppliers and purchase department to procure the best possible ingredients, especially in a place like Hong Kong where most of the ingredients are imported. “I had been dreaming of getting a star since 2016, when opened Chutney Mary in Green Park. We decided to take a leap of faith and open CHAAT in May 2020, a very tough time for all of us, as it was for everyone around the world. Each and every person in my team gave in there 200 percent. That’s what got us where we are now,” says Tuli. If a chef leaves a restaurant they are not entitled to take the stars with them. Rather the stars remain attached to the restaurant where they were obtained.
Interestingly, white tablecloths thought to be a must doesn’t factor in Michelin's decisions. “The most common misconception regarding Michelin Stars is that all Michelin-starred restaurants are stuffy dining rooms with heavily starched white table cloths and stiff upper lip service. Service is of course important, but eating out should be exciting. Front of house staff can make or break a restaurant experience, but the service needn’t be unapproachably formal,” says Kochhar. Take Singapore's eatery Hawker Chan that bagged one star for its simple-yet-delicious $2.50 soy sauce chicken noodle dish in 2016. Hole-in-the-wall dim sum joint Tim Ho Wan was considered the cheapest Michelin star restaurant, when it received a star in 2010.
Since 1997, Michelin has also awarded ‘Bib Gourmands’ (Bib is short for Bibendum, the Michelin Tyre Man’s name) to restaurants that offer good quality food at reasonable prices. In Europe, the amount is €36, US$40 in American cities, HK300 in Hong Kong and Y5,000 in Tokyo for a three course meal. “People tend to think that Michelin Star restaurants are exorbitantly expensive. But that’s not true.
Many starred restaurants offer economical meals. Also, most of the restaurants don’t need to be booked six months in advance,” clarifies Saini. Then there is the Michelin Plate - a nod to places that have been recognised but are yet to earn a star.
And unlike the actual stars in the sky, Michelin stars are not permanent. Restaurants can lose their star if they close during the next annual review cycle, don’t keep up with culinary standard or change menu. Neither can you hand the stars back. Stars are an opinion, expressed in a guide, so you can ignore them but you cannot erase them. As the then Michelin Guide international director Michael Ellis told Vanity Fair in 2015: “‘You can agree with it or you cannot, but you can’t give it back. That’s not an issue.’ The giving back of stars that’s ‘kind of an urban myth.’”
Inspections happen secretly. Saini certainly had no idea he’d been inspected. “The inspections by the Michelin team are done anonymously. Even the identities of all the inspectors are a well-guarded secret by the Michelin society. Usually, three different inspectors dine on separate occasions to confirm the vote for a star. They dine like a normal guest and pay the entire bill while keeping the conversations to a minimum,” he adds.
Does the recognition put extra pressure on the chef? “At first, yes. But as chefs we’re used to a little pressure, it’s what makes us thrive in the kitchen. The stars were difficult to maintain, but that just made us even more proud when they were retained or gained,” says Kochhar. And as far as retaining the star is concerned Saini has a plan. “Innovation with every new menu is key. We will improvise and continue to bring some of the never heard or imagined dishes to our guests. I feel if we continue the path of innovation, we will be able to retain the star or maybe even add another one in the next year’s guide.”