A handbook launched over a century ago has had an untold and profound effect on restaurateurs worldwide.
Cars and cooking have virtually nothing in common besides trying to fry eggs on bonnets on hot days for jests – or so you might think. But what of this tenuous connection with fine dining? The truth is, the merging of these two ideas is how an in-car guide book was propelled to become a world-renowned restaurant holy grail, thanks to an idea to help grow the motor industry.
It started with two brothers, André and Edouard Michelin, hell bent on bringing French car manufacturing to the fore. But how could they encourage a country, which in 1900 had just 3,000 cars on its roads, to use their tyres or to buy a car? The answer was simple: tell them there’s something worth driving for.
The large print was improving customer mobility and exploring the terrain in your new fangled automobile; the fine print – to increase demand for Michelin products. And 35,000 copies later the first Michelin guide, filled with some pretty useful information about cars and tyres, also gave motorists some added extras – like where to find mechanics, petrol stations and hotels for a kip and a meal after a long journey. It was a real glove-compartment companion, and free of charge.
But it didn’t stay that way for long. It was given a cover price – after all, the information inside was about to become highly valuable. And so in 1926 that value was to be found in the star ratings. The one-star was pinned onto the stop-offs thought of as “a very good restaurant in its own category”. By 1931, the two-star and three-star ratings followed: “excellent cooking, worth a detour”, and the very teasing “exceptional cuisine, worth a special trip”. This move into defining the best of cuisine the country over by way of driving tours was somewhat reflected in the name of the Michelin man, Bibendum, which roughly translates to “Now is the time to drink”. It’s as if they’d planned it all along.
Looking at the alternatives, Michelin could have gone all Pirelli on us with calendar girls twerking on tyre swings – a product with just 50 years under its belt. Michelin may have the oldest idea with its glovebox guide, but it’s probably now in a more modern place than its Pirelli counterpart. And thank god, because its concept lends itself to spinning off, such as the free guide produced for Rome’s homeless, which lists where to find a free meal, a hot bath, and a bed for the night.
Over 100 years since the first guide, the Michelin guide has somewhat outgrown its chef whites. Though it still sticks with its recognisable red cover, critics argue it has become a self-perpetuating nonsense that puts indelible pressure on chefs and their kitchen staff. Others (including chefs) would argue its a necessity, giving chefs a reason to explore their own culinary metamorphosis in line with the competition. But this car trip marketing strategy has ultimately resulted in a competitive streak running through the blood of the restaurant industry that causes palpitations over plates throughout the world.
Criticisms aside (let’s not broach the tetchy subject of the Michelin inspectors today), the essence remains: to discover food of a quality, perhaps in a town or city you’ve never been to before. And if it takes you somewhere new, and you can all agree it was worth the detour or a special trip, then you can only but argue it’s served a meaningful purpose.