How do you get a Michelin star? International director Gwendal Poullennec sheds light on the guide's inspection process

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd September 2019

Historically, the Michelin Guide has been a cryptic, secretive, almost mystical institution, unveiling its accreditation process to no-one for fear of jeopardising its independence. 

But in September last year, a new international director took the reigns, and his approach differs to his predecessors'. Gwendal Poullennec believes that in order to ensure the guide's international expansion, restaurants must be given some clarity on how stars are awarded. 

In an interview with Singapore's Business Times, Mr Poullennec explained that if chefs feel a sense of injustice with regards to the guide's methodology, it is often due to a lack of knowledge. To this end, he wishes to "develop a real dialogue with chefs to explain how it works."

Here are some of the points on which he shed some light - some new, others already known, with the promise of a more open era for the guide in the years to come.

Identical criteria

First and foremost, the judging criteria is  the same no matter what food is being assessed, he explained.

“You look at the quality of the product; mastery of the cooking technique; balance of flavour; personality of the chef as expressed on the plate; and consistency." 

What remains a secret, however, are the benchmarks used to measure proficiency in each of them. 

When it comes to moving up the ranks to a two star or even a three star rating, he explained that the notorious "worth a stop" description actually means it’s a good place in its category of cuisine. "Worth a detour" - which will give you two stars, he said, "means it’s national level and just beginning to have an international reputation." Three stars - described in the guide as "worth a trip" are only given to exceptional restaurants. 

A group decision

Dispelling the misconception that a single inspector decides on the fate of a restaurant, the international director insisted that stars were always given based on the outcome of at least three inspections, and that the final decision would always be made as a group. 

What's more, he said, inspectors rarely visit alone: they often dine in twos and even in threes - and always pay for their meals.

Food food and nothing but the food 

More a reiteration than a revelation,  Poullennec explained that the reason why all types of restaurants can be Michelin star recipients - from white tablecloth fine dining places to single-dish street food stalls - is that the only thing the inspectors rate is the food itself. 

Room for error 

Restaurants aren't at their peak every single day of the year, and for this inspectors are given some leeway - and will visit again if necessary.

“We understand that cooking is a very human process,” he said. 

Stars are for restaurants, not chefs 

Whether of not the chef is present when an inspection takes place is irrelevant, as it is the restaurant that is assessed. It is for this reason that a chef cannot return his or her stars. 

Local expertise

Despite the idea that most inspectors must be French, as that is where the guide originates from and such a high proportion of Michelin-starred restaurants are there, Poullennec said: “We have 15 nationalities in our team and French inspectors are a minority worldwide. In Japan we recruit locals with the right skills and train them so they can produce the guide and also go overseas to assess Japanese restaurants. In China we have to train people about Chinese food because there are so many different kinds.”

Not everywhere is worthy of three stars

There is no such thing as a quota for each number of stars, he explained, as otherwise the aforementioned methodology would become meaningless. 

"The guide reflects the quality of restaurants and there is no set number of stars for any cuisine or nationalities. The results are based on facts and the experience of our inspectors," he said. 

A European bias?

Poullennec clarified that the reason why European-trained chefs tended to earn more stars than chefs native to the location of the guide - such as Singapore, in this instance - is down to methodology. In time, local chefs will (and have) risen to Michelin standards and outnumbered the number of European chefs worthy of accolades.

Some things may remain a secret, but that doesn't mean you have to stay in the dark

For restaurants that remain doubtful of the inspection process, Poullennec stated that they are more than welcome to ask for feedback as to where they fell short of the guide's benchmarks. 

"But we will not tell you how to get [a star]," he said. 

Even if he were to write a rulebook, he explained, each individual restaurant would have to become worthy through its own means. 

“It’s all about your personality, cooking techniques, your team. Don’t copy - as some have done in the past," he said.

"Be yourself. Most of the time the highest awards come when the chef and team focus on the client. They forget about the star and just produce an authentic experience. Then as a client, we would be satisfied and we would award a star."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd September 2019

How do you get a Michelin star? International director Gwendal Poullennec sheds light on the guide's inspection process