The history of the Michelin Guide

The Staff Canteen

Although motoring and cooking aren’t exactly two professions you would associate with one another, Michelin brought the two together with no questions asked. With the publication of the 2015 Michelin Guide just around the corner, The Staff Canteen takes a look at the history of this coveted guidebook and why those stars have come to mean so much…michelin-logo

"This Guide was born with the century, and it will last every bit as long," were the words inked in the very first edition of the Michelin Guide, published in August 1900 and containing useful information for French motorists such as maps, lists of petrol stations, mechanics and hotels.

Nearly 35,000 copies were printed despite there being less than 3,000 cars on the road in France at the time, but brothers André and Eduardo Michelin were confident their free guide would increase the demand for cars and therefore for their tyre manufacturing business.

They weren’t wrong- and by 1904, Belgium became the first country outside of France to have its own dedicated guide, and the British Isles didn’t have to wait long for its turn in 1911. Despite its growing popularity, the guide’s publication paused during World War I, however it wasn’t long before revised editions were once again distributed for free. It remained that way until 1920, the year when André paid a visit to tyre merchant, only to discover his guide was being used to prop up a workbench. 1st Edition

He and his brother believed, “Man only truly respects what he pays for!” and from 1922, every edition was charged at 7 francs; equivalent to around 85 pence using today’s exchange rates. This wasn’t the only change that the Michelin brothers made; they also abandoned advertisements, introduced a list of Parisian hotels and listed restaurants according to certain criteria. The restaurant section’s reputation blossomed, which did not go un-noticed by André and Edouard. They recruited the renowned ‘Michelin inspectors’, and in 1926, the first fine dining star came into existence.

Five years later, the next two stars were welcomed into the French provinces, before making their debut in Paris in 1933. The criteria for each star in the hierarchy were finally published in 1936, and have remained the same ever since.

One star: “Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”/“A very good restaurant in its category” Two stars: “Table excellente, mérite un detour”/”Excellent cooking, worth a detour” Three stars: “Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”/ “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special trip” Among the first few to be awarded the distinguished three-star rating was Eugenie Brazier, not only making her the first female chef to do so, but also the first French chef to receive 6 stars overall for her two restaurants- La Mere Brazier in both Lyon and Le Col de la Luere.

Publication came to a halt once again when World War II broke out, but in Spring 1944, the Allied Forces requested a reprint of the 1939 edition as the detailed maps were a great substitute for the road signs in France that had been removed or destroyed. The guide, labelled with ‘official use only’ on the front cover, allowed the forces to navigate to the towns they would then liberate on D-Day. The guide was back on the shelves the following Spring, just a week after V-E Day, and stated on the cover, ‘This edition, prepared during the war, cannot be as complete and precise as our pre-war Michelin Guide 1920 - credit to Telegraphpublications. Nevertheless, it should be useful.’

However, in the early years following the war, Michelin chose to award a limit of two stars due to ‘wartime shortages’. In 1956, Michelin Guide Italy was published, but the first edition awarded no stars; in comparison, 1974 saw Britain receive its first guide since the original in 1931, and 25 stars were awarded. Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, near Lyon, is the longest holder of the prestigious three-stars, having impressed the mystery diners since 1965.

He has even said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.”
Restaurants that offer ‘good food at moderate prices’ have been recognised in the guide since 1955, but in 1997, it officially became a feature called ‘Bib Gourmand’. Restaurants are listed as so if they offer ‘superior value for money’, according to the local economic standards. In Great Britain and Ireland, this qualifies as two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for under £28.

By 2005, the Michelin Guide had crossed the pond and introduced the Michelin Guide to New York, which featured 500 restaurants across the city’s five boroughs. There was no stopping the guide after its move from Europe; in 2007 the Tokyo Michelin Guide was published, and expanded into Hong Kong a year later. There are now 14 editions of the Michelin Guide which cover 23 countries and are sold across nearly 90.

The guide does not come without its criticisms and controversies, such as elite dining experiences Last year's Michelin Guideand favouritism of French cuisine, but at over 100 years old, it is still one of the most respected guides around. Buzz surrounds its release every year, and can be a ‘make or break’ moment for the chef and their restaurant- Gordon Ramsay even admitted breaking down in tears when his New York restaurant ‘The London’ lost its two star classification last year saying, “It’s like losing a girlfriend. You want her back.”

The Michelin Guide (2015) will be released on 25th September.  Words by Alys Penfold 

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd September 2014

The history of the Michelin Guide