Michelin Stargazing

For over a century, the Michelin Guide has been the most famous hallmark of fine dining. First launched by the Michelin tyre company in France, the system reviews restaurants and awards one to three stars to the food establishments they believe have achieved culinary excellence. The accolade began as a merchandising strategy; by recommending restaurants to drivers, Michelin hoped to increase the time spent driving, thus selling more tyres. According to the Guide one star means worth a stop, two stars means worth a detour and three stars means worth a special journey. However, despite its humble beginnings, achieving a Michelin star has become an extremely sought-after honour for chefs and restaurateurs everywhere.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, best known for reducing others to tears in the kitchen, claims that he cried when his New York restaurant ‘The London’ lost its two star status in 2014. In fact, the compulsion to achieve, or maintain a Michelin star has even become a matter of life and death. In 2003 Bernard Loiseau, a French chef, died from a self-inflicted gunshot after a newspaper suggested that his three stars might be stripped from his restaurant.

So why, after all these decades, is this award still so strongly coveted in the food and hospitality industries? In a 2014 interview with The Telegraph, renowned chef Marco Pierre White stated that for him, ‘winning a Michelin star was like winning an Oscar’. Chef Francesco Mazzei of ‘L’Anima’ restaurant in London told the BBC that ‘a Michelin star is the best achievement a chef can ever gain. It helps the chef to become a perfectionist.’

Indeed, perfection is something that chefs must strive for when hoping to be awarded the prestigious accolade, as stars are given based solely on the food served. Despite secrecy concerning the judging process, criteria known to be considered by Michelin’s anonymous adjudicators include the quality of the food, the chef’s mastery of the particular cooking method and the consistency of the food between visits. An additional ‘fork and spoon’ system is used by the Michelin Guide in order to rate aspects of the restaurant’s décor, atmosphere and service, but these elements are not involved in the process of awarding stars. Since 1997, the Michelin Guide have also awarded a prize called the Bib Gourmand which, as per their official website, indicates ‘good quality, good value restaurants’.

The Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland 2020 was announced on the 7th of October 2019 at a ceremony The Hurlingham Club in London. Five new Irish restaurants achieved Michelin Stars, bringing the total of Michelin Starred restaurants in the country up to twenty one. Several, such as Dublin restaurants L’Ecrivain on Baggot Street and Chapter One in Parnell Square retained their one-star status, while several others received stars for the first time. Aimsir in Kildare, which opened only six months ago clinched two stars, joining Dublin’s The Greenhouse and Patrick Guilbaud as the only three Irish restaurants to have two star status. Not only that, but Variety Jones on Thomas Street became one of the first gastropubs in the world to secure a star. Variety Jones owner Keelan Higgs trained as a chef in both The Greenhouse and Locks Brasserie, which won a star in 2013. Higgs told The Independent that his culinary inspiration and determination comes from “sharing food around a table ...it's part of Irish culture to bring people together”.

Despite the mania surrounding Michelin stars, the system has been harshly criticized by chefs and laypeople alike all around the world. In fact it has been widely speculated that the Guide, having been pioneered in France, typically favours lavish, formal French restaurants and overlooks some more progressive and modern establishments. This effectively makes the Michelin Guide less relevant to the average diner. However, recent publications of the Guide contradict this assumption. In 2014 gastropubs began to be included in the Guide and, as well as Variety Jones, The Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna also currently holds one star. Keelan Higgs was again quoted in The Independent saying ‘I think the inspectors saw that we were doing something different and went with us.’

2016 saw even more drastic changes to the inclusivity of the Michelin Guide, as two Singaporean street food stalls were presented with one Michelin star each.

The notion of Michelin Guide restaurants being very expensive has also been debated by critics. A recent study on the consumption of fast food in Ireland, conducted by Dr Mary McGreevy in conjunction with RedC Research and Marketing, uncovered that three in four people under the age of thirty four eat fast food and takeaways at least once a week. So, with people leading increasingly busy lifestyles and the cost of living growing by the day, is it really practical to spend extortionate amounts of money at a Michelin star restaurant, when a cheaper meal could be sourced elsewhere?

For students, foodies and connoisseurs on a budget, this is where the Bib Gourmand comes into play. This list, which highlights the best quality food at the most affordable prices, has been growing longer each year. Dublin, in particular, is teeming with these value-for money-restaurants. Dylan McGrath’s ‘Fade St Social’ on Fade St offers ‘homegrown produce…assembled in an uncomplicated way’ and you can dine there, according to the Michelin Guide, from just twenty five euro per person. Pichet on Trinity St offers meals from twenty four euro, while you can enjoy The Pig’s Ear on Nassau St for just twenty three euro per person.

Given how long the Michelin Guide has been around, its impartiality and, indeed, its relevance have often been called into question. However, to this day it continues to direct diners towards top quality food and to motivate chefs and restaurants; spurring them on to, figuratively and literally, reach for the stars.