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Michelin Star History: Discovering the Iconic Culinary Guide

A small red book with French text; the first Michelin guide and the origin of the Michelin star

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Michelin star origins: a brief history of the Michelin Guide

Every year, chefs across the planet eagerly await the publication of the Michelin Guide, the leading global authority on the world’s best dining establishments. A prestigious Michelin star is seen as the pinnacle accolade a restaurant can receive. It means that they are the best of the best, serving serious culinary magic that is every bit as inventive as it is daring. The quest to earn an elusive star can be intense – it’s even been known to reduce hardened chefs to tears. But before we focus on the importance of these highly coveted culinary awards, we need to go back to the beginning and trace the history of the Michelin Guide.

Fine Dining At Bagnols Restaurant

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What are Michelin stars?

A Michelin star is part of the esteemed restaurant rating system and is awarded for food excellence. The stars are actually presented to the restaurant, rather than the individual chef, which means that chefs who run several eateries can hold an infinite number of stars – the late Joël Robuchon once held an impressive 32 Michelin stars! However, as Michelin only operates in certain regions, to be in the running, a restaurant needs to be strategically located. Being awarded a Michelin star is like winning an Oscar of the culinary world. Earn two or even three and the restaurant is virtually guaranteed to be booked out for months in advance by a never-ending list of foodies and celebrities.

michelin tyres on a porsche

How and when did the Michelin Guide start?

The Michelin Guide began life in France as a humble travel guide way back in 1900. It was created by the Michelin tyre company as a promotional freebie to encourage drivers to take more road trips – and therefore burn more rubber. The ‘little red book’, as it is affectionately called, contained a wealth of information including maps and locations of petrol stations, as well as restaurants, hotels and other attractions. As the tyre company grew, so did their guide, and by the 1920s they began charging for the booklet. In 1926, the guide changed to focus on what it is now best known for – fine dining – with a team of mystery diners, known as ‘inspectors’, visiting and reviewing restaurants in France. This simple marketing tactic has led to the fine-dining bible and rating system we know today.

black and white image of two men with beards and glasses in suits, the michelin brothers André and Édouard

Image: Michelin Guide

Who created the Michelin star?

After the Guide, came the rating system – but who started the actual Michelin star? The Michelin brothers themselves, André and Édouard, with more than a passing nod to its motoring roots, came up with the concept and the name. In 1926, they started by awarding a single star and by 1931 had introduced the hierarchy of three stars. At that time, one star meant the restaurant was worthy of a stop along the way; two stars meant it was worth a detour; and three stars warranted a special journey to visit the restaurant.

signature dish from Bagnols Restaurant

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How does a restaurant get a Michelin star? How hard is it to get one?

So how can a chef be awarded a Michelin star, what are the secret ingredients? Michelin is still actually using similar methods to those first employed 100 years ago. Fastidiously anonymous inspectors, with a passion for food and an eye for detail, travel around the world sampling the finest cuisine on offer. After several visits, the inspector writes a comprehensive report about the overall culinary and dining experience. Upholding its notoriously mysterious reputation, Michelin keeps much of its approach under wraps. However, it is believed that the standard of the dishes is the key, specifically the quality of the ingredients, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques. Other factors thought to be considered are value for money, consistency, ambience and even the personality of the chef.

Notable Michelin-starred chefs

Who are the culinary stars of the Michelin stars? Michelin record-breaker and legendary chef Alain Ducasse can literally say he has conquered the final frontier of space, having sent his food to astronauts in the International Space Centre. Arguably the most arguable chef in the world is volatile Brit, Gordon Ramsay. Once jeered at for meddling with sacred traditional Italian dishes, Massimo Bottura is now the owner of a three-Michelin-star eatery and star of the Netflix show, Chef’s Table. While in the US, Thomas Keller currently holds seven stars. And let’s not forget the female counterparts – Anne Sophie Pic holds an impressive eight stars across her five restaurants.

Other notable Michelin-starred chefs include:

Heston Blumenthal - described as a culinary alchemist for his legendary reinvention of British dishes

Can a chef lose their Michelin stars?

Winning stars is one thing, keeping them is a whole different game. If standards start to slip, then the stars go with them! A sobbing Gordon Ramsay took a memorable tumble when his restaurant The London lost both of its two stars. But for some chefs, the stars can lose their lustre. Marco Pierre White, the youngest chef to ever acquire three Michelin stars, famously gave them up in 1999. At the height of his career, the ‘enfant terrible’ of the UK culinary scene quit the kitchen, stopped chasing stars and instead started having fun with food again.

A plate with artistically arranged food in a Michelin starred restaurant during an Ultimate Driving Tours adventure.

Image: Ultimate Driving Tours

How important are Michelin stars?

For chefs – in the world according to the Michelin Guide, gaining or losing stars has the ability to make, shape or break a restaurant’s future. For food lovers – eating is one of life’s great pleasures. When combined with travel it’s more than just enjoyment – it’s culture, authenticity and interaction with locals and local cuisine. And when that eating experience is in a Michelin-starred culinary hotspot, you know it’s going to be one truly incredible and memorable meal.

beaume luxury hotel in paris, france

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Final Thoughts

Where better to combine your love of gourmet food with exquisite supercars, than in France. As the birthplace of the little red book, it’s quite fitting that the inventor of modern haute cuisine continues to hold on to its title as the country with the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants. Hit the road in search of sublime flavours on an incredible gourmet journey through France on the Beautiful Cars & Michelin Stars tour. Indulge in both gastronomic delights and the F1 Monaco Grand Prix on a luxury driving tour through Provence. Or enjoy the independence of a pre-planned, perfectly curated self-drive, complete with plenty of excellent Michelin-starred recommendations.

Contact our friendly team for more gourmet recommendations and travel advice.

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