Myth-busting Michelin: Everything you need to know about the world’s most famous food guide

·9-min read
Award-winning dining: Notting Hill's The Ledbury hopes to regain its stars   (Jonathan Thompson)
Award-winning dining: Notting Hill's The Ledbury hopes to regain its stars (Jonathan Thompson)

Each year, Michelin releases its UK index — and the restaurant industry either sighs in relief or shrugs in indifference. For some, they're a cause for celebration; others — with frustration — regard them as an increasing irrelevance.

This year's British list will be revealed today at Northampton’s Silverstone circuit, where winners will be announced live at 6pm this evening, livestreamed via their socials.

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Already this year, the news cycle is underway. One chef in France, Guy Savoy, once lauded as the worlds greatest living chef, lost a star at his eponymous restaurant in Paris, demoted from three to two.

Michelin are famously keen on discretion and inspectors dine anonymously. Because of the secrecy, rumours fly, and despite being a household name, there’s still plenty of confusion surrounding the guide. We’ve rounded up some of the most prevelant rumours to separate fact from fiction.

“The Michelin Guide rates chefs"

Michelin considers restaurants and claims to judge “what's on the plate and only what's on the plate".

The guide’s five criteria 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.

Though it is the restaurants which are awarded the stars, a chef leaving or a menu change may well be enough for Michelin to revoke a star or, indeed, to award one. The intrinsic relationship between the chef and what's on a plate is usually why it's common to hear chatter of “Michelin-starred chefs", even though individuals do not receive the star.

The exact criteria of what earns the accolade is vague — and even slightly, thrillingly uncertain. One rumour says a place can't get two stars unless there's a sofa in the bar, but this is patently untrue. Take the Araki in Mayfair, which formerly had three stars; nine seats and no sofa.

Incidentally, restaurant decor was long thought to factor in Michelin's decisions with, for a time, white tablecloths thought to be a must. Given Singapore chef Hawker Chan won a star in 2016 for his Singapore street food, it's not likely. Restaurant critic Andy Hayler, the first man to have eaten at every three-star restaurant in the world, points out that Sushi Saito has top marks despite serving food “at a wooden counter within a multi-storey car park".

So, the cooking and consistency take centre stage during an inspection but atmosphere, service and comfort make an important supporting cast. To reflect this, Michelin classify restaurants using “covers”, a crossed knife and fork indicating how comfortable a place is on a scale of one to five.

“Michelin only do fine dining"

 (Jonathan Glynn-Smith)
(Jonathan Glynn-Smith)

From the outside, the guide is generally considered a compendium of fine dining, but Michelin themselves work from a different basic premise. The reference to travelling comes from the guide's origins — when the Michelin brothers Édouard and André first wrote it in 1900, their hope was that it would encourage drivers to travel farther afield, and buy more tyres accordingly. The three-star ranking has been used continually since 1931, with the guidelines below outlined in 1936.

One star: Very good cooking in its category.

Two stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour.

Three stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.

This doesn't, however, mention anything about fine dining or formality. Closer to home, in Whitstable, the Sportsman pub — a very lovely pub but a pub all the same — has held a star for more than a decade. In 2012, Skye Gyngell famously quit the Petersham Nurseries Cafe in Richmond, a year after being awarded a star. “People have certain expectations of a Michelin restaurant but we don't have cloths on the tables and our service isn't very formal," she said at the time. “If they're used to eating at Marcus Wareing then they feel let down when they come here."

Besides the stars themselves, there's also Bib Gourmands (the 2023 list is out now), which recognises "small, charming restaurants" serving good food an affordable prices — in the UK, this means three courses for under £30. That said, just because a restaurant is more affordable, doesn't mean it will get a Bib rather than anything else; São Paulo's Tuju first picked up its two stars when the set lunch was around £20. In Marlow, two hours out of London, Tom Kerridge's upscale pub The Coach has a star, and much of the menu is under £20.

London’s Michelin star offerings remain on the more expensive side, with 69 restaurants currently on the list, including A.Wong, The Ritz and Clove Club. Read our full list of Michelin star restaurants in London.

Green stars are a more contemporary addition, introduced in 2021 to denote a restaurant’s commitment to sustainable practices. In Michelin’s own words, these are restaurants which “hold themselves accountable for both their ethical and environmental standards” and “work with sustainable producers and suppliers to avoid waste and reduce or even remove plastic and other non-recyclable materials from their supply chain.” In London, just three restaurants are awarded with this accolade: the OXO Tower Brasserie on the South Bank, Petersham Nurseries in Richmond and the zero-waste Silo in Hackney.

Finally, there is the Michelin Plate. Judged on similar grounds to the stars and the Bib Gourmands, the Plates are a nod to places that have been recognised but are yet to earn one of the other awards; these include high-end spots, like Corrigan's Mayfair or Jean-Georges at The Connaught, as well as more casual places like the Draper's Arms. Sometimes a Plate means somewhere hasn't done enough to get a star, other times it means they're simply too expensive for a Bib Gourmand. “

“Chefs can hand their stars back"

A Michelin star is not for life. If restaurants close during the year or do not maintain standards, they won't make it into the next edition.

One of the most famous Michelin rumours involves Marco Pierre White, who is said to have “handed back” his stars. This is apocryphal: the stars are not physical, they are a form of criticism and cannot be rejected any more or less than a write-up from Jimi Famurewa could be.

Instead, chefs can lose their stars on purpose: changing a menu is an easy way to do so. The only exception has been Sebastian Bras, of Le Suquet. Bras had held three stars for 18 years but Michelin did not include him in their 2018 guide, at his request, as Bras had publicly spoken of struggling to keep up with the pressure. In the end, though, he was returned to the 2019 edition with two stars, Michelin deciding he'd just have to cope. Bras was said to be surprised.

A Michelin recommendation does not guarantee a lifetime of success, either. Sadly, Chelsea's high-end Indian Vineet Bhatia (VBL) closed a few years back, just one week after picking up a star. More recently the pandemic has affected even the most lauded of Michelin-starred chefs, with Simon Rogan’s starred Roganic in Marylebone closing in 2020, and Nuno Mendes’ one-starred former restaurant Maos shutting up shop in March last year (replaced by Cycene in the same space on Redchurch street).

“All chefs know the criteria for a Michelin star"

A Michelin star is a perplexing badge of honour — mainly because nobody can quite pinpoint exactly what's needed to get one. Even top chefs dispute the key components because officials have remained so tight-lipped on the details. That said, Michelin's various Twitter accounts regularly write about where they've been and what they've eaten, which must be an indication of what is presently impressing.

This public ambiguity gives Michelin a mixed reputation in the industry. So too does the tremendous pressure of an inclusion, because customers may expect too much from the association.

There is some controversy over whether the Michelin standards are the same the world over. Officially, they are, but this is not just unlikely but also probably an impossibility. Incidentally, Michelin don't write up restaurants all across the globe: much of the American continent is missed, as is all of Africa, most of Asia and India.

“Michelin stars are the highest honour for a chef"

Not everyone wants a star and not everyone sees them as the highest accolade going.

“The only people who really care about Michelin stars in New York are French guys… We could live without it quite nicely," the late Anthony Bourdain once told Vanity Fair. Many years back, at a supper in Covent Garden's RedFarm, owner Ed Schoenfeld was recounting various successes during his long career, which has involved opening 55 restaurants. “We've had Michelin," he told the Standard, “we've had better than Michelin — we've had four stars from the New York Times." Perspective is everything.

The guide is also a frequent target for criticism. In 2004, former Michelin inspector Pascal Remy caused ripples of surprise ahead of the launch of his book L'inspecteur se met à table. Remy had worked for Michelin for 16 years and claimed only five full-time inspectors toured France, meaning some restaurants were scrutinised only once every 30 months. Michelin disputed the claim, insisting visits tend to be an average of 18 months apart while noting that three-star restaurants are usually visited multiple times a year to ensure consistency — as often as a dozen times over 12 months. Remy also criticised the guide for favouritism, an accusation that has been levelled at it many times over the years.

Nevertheless, the guide is well regarded and clearly matters to many. Gordon Ramsay famously declared that having stars taken away was like “losing a girlfriend", while in New York, staff at Manhattan's Daniel “cried for one day" when their third star was revoked. Alain Ducasse telephoned the board personally. More importantly, though, it has become a byword for quality, for restaurants worth going to.

“Michelin guide inspectors are easy to spot"

The identities of Michelin inspectors are confidential, to ensure that their visits are carried out anonymously. Still, it's true inspectors will chat with chefs and restaurant managers, sometimes asking for them at the end of a meal. Officially, the only time inspectors may reveal their position is to gain up-to-date information but either way, once they've been identified, they're no longer able to review the site again.

In truth, restaurants will always try to guess who is who and accommodate accordingly. This is where the pressure comes from, from not knowing, from worrying, from trying to meet expectations that are ill-defined. This is what makes the guide worth trusting, too: a place must be reliably good. There can be no off days and consistency is everything. It is an unrelenting standard that some find unfair — but then, perhaps that's why it remains the most important food guide in the world.