Is Michelin’s star falling?

Posted by on Jul 15, 2011 | 0 comments

Michelin’s move from Paris’ chic 7th Arrondissement to the decaying suburbs is worrying enough. The Michelin guide has also been floundering for an editorial director for seven months and resorted to hiring a management consulting firm to help them survive another century. But Accenture’s assessment was not good–the venerable red book will lose 70 million Euros by 2015 unless the company changes their ways.

The Michelin tire company became a French cultural institution when it started reviewing restaurants back in 1900 and publishing their starred rankings in a little red guide for drivers. A century later, these stars are known to make or break the world’s great restaurants–but they’re expensive, requiring in-person visits to each restaurant reviewed, and the reviews are anonymous, which means that they can’t become an income source for the company. Compromising these values would tarnish their image… and French national pride.

How bad is it, really, though? In the Silicon Age, we have access to more information about the world’s restaurants than we can possibly digest. From crowd-sourced Yelp and TripAdvisor to curated foodie blogs galore (ahem), we can now chew on personal reviews for the taco truck on the corner as well as the world’s great eats. Is the Michelin star really worth all that much anymore?

I’d argue yes and no. Their reviewers (when they don’t screw up) are among the best-trained tasters in the world, and the relative scarcity of stars practically guarantees excellent quality and service at those establishments. A century after they were invented, these stars are universally recognized; one estimate says that a star will add 30% to the restaurant’s revenue. (That said, a two-starred chef once told me that he won’t ever aim for a third star, because the cost to him would make his restaurant unprofitable!)

But the guide rouge is a French cultural institution more than it is a universal arbiter of taste. Michelin is notoriously conservative in their picks and rankings, which selects for an elite class of restaurants biased toward a very French definition of haute cuisine. This elitism and nationalism undermines Via Gusta’s goal of exposing the world to traditional foods from around the globe. But Michelin is not our arch-nemesis! Their opinions are important, and their starred restaurants are rarely off the mark–as long as you recognize that their guides are not perfect.

Please don’t tell the French.