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October 26, 2023updated Oct 27, 2023

How the Prestigious Michelin Star System Really Works

We reveal how restaurants achieve three-star status, as well as who decides to award them.

By Kim Ayling

The world of fine dining is rapidly evolving: Nowadays, many of the world’s best restaurants rely more on word-of-mouth recommendations and loyal diners over the critics and guides. Despite this, the Michelin Guide remains a symbol of undisputed excellence. The guide is shrouded in mystery, though, with the question of how to be awarded one or more of the coveted Michelin stars still a commonly asked one.

The Michelin Guide first came to be in 1900, when the Michelin tire company launched a ranking of French restaurants to encourage people to drive more, ergo go through tires at a faster rate. The quick grew in popularity, eventually becoming better known for its restaurant rankings than its wheels. The guide expanded and today, each annual ranking is separated by location.

[See also: Restaurant Gordon Ramsay Celebrates 25 Years]

However, there’s still a large number of culinary-rich countries and cities not covered, a fact often hailed as the Michelin Guide’s biggest downfall. Even New York and Tokyo, both of which have long been considered fine dining capitals, only achieved inclusion in 2005 and 2007 respectively. To get a Michelin star, your restaurant naturally must be within one of the covered regions.

It’s important to clarify that restaurants are awarded Michelin stars, not chefs. There is no such thing as a ‘Michelin-starred chef’; if the head chef leaves a restaurant, the star does not go with them. That being said, the success of many of the world’s leading restaurants is synonymous with the chef at the helm, and it’s increasingly common for a star to be reminded the next time the inspectors come knocking following a big-name departure. For example, it is universally agreed that California’s The French Laundry‘s three-star status is thanks to the talent of chef/owner Thomas Keller.

[See also: Rising Stars: Next-gen Chefs in the Michelin Guide]

the french laundry michelin star restaurant
California’s The French Laundry has three Michelin stars / ©The French Laundry/Michael Grimm

How are Michelin stars awarded?

The Michelin guide still uses similar methods to rate restaurants as it did when it launched. To allocate its coveted stars, the Michelin guide employs thousands of inspectors, who will travel around the world to sample the finest cuisine on offer. The highly trained inspectors will visit hundreds of restaurants a year in order to identify the best of the best.

Michelin inspectors are always anonymous to ensure they don’t receive any preferential treatment during their meals. Inspectors book, dine and pay for their meal in the same way as the average guest; if their experience were different from that of anyone else, the integrity of the guide would be undermined. The inspectors’ anonymity is valued so highly that they are advised to not even tell their closest friends and family about their role.

Once each restaurant in consideration has been inspected, the Michelin guide director meets with the worldwide teams for what is called ‘star sessions’ where the rating of each restaurant is debated. These sessions often last days, with each establishment considered one by one until a unanimous decision is reached. The results are then published in a country-specific guide.

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[See also: See Elite Traveler’s Top Restaurants Ranking Here]

What do Michelin stars mean?

Restaurants can earn a maximum of three stars (as well as some additional awards, but more on that later). Michelin quantifies one star as being “high-quality cooking, worth a stop”; two stars is for “excellent cooking, worth a detour”; and finally, the prestigious three stars represent “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

[See also: A Guide to All Three-Michelin-Star Restaurants in the USA]

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London has three Michelin stars / ©Restaurant Gordon Ramsay

Reportedly, what elevates a restaurant from two stars to three is emotion, with inspectors seeking completely unique dining experiences that last in the memory long after the meal has finished. Demonstration of a chef’s distinct style or personality in their cooking is another key criterion.

The final rating is never decided based on just one visitor or inspector. Instead, a collective of inspectors will individually visit restaurants on multiple occasions in order to ensure the quality is consistent. The rating will then be reassessed based on yearly visits with some decisions factor in in several meals.

Although the exact criteria are kept low-key in order to avoid chefs embarking on a tick boxing exercise, it is widely known that inspectors base their selections on the quality of ingredients, culinary techniques, taste, consistency and value for money.

Crucially, the anonymous judges are instructed to take no notice of a restaurant’s décor or the service they receive when deciding the star rating. Your restaurant may be stunningly fitted and your wait staff meticulously trained, but if the food isn’t up to scratch it won’t be receiving a star. Likewise, a restaurant with understated settings but exceptional food may still be eligible for the full trio of stars.

[See also: The Most Iconic Restaurants of the Elite Traveler Era]

eric ripert from le bernardin
Éric Ripert has been head chef of three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin since 1996 / ©Daniel Krieger

Alternative Michelin awards

While the Michelin stars are its most famous awards, they are not the guide’s only recognition. In addition to star ratings, Michelin has also awarded the Bib Gourmand since 1957, Michelin Plate since 2016 and most recently, the Green star, which was first revealed in 2020.

Not to be confused as a lesser award than the star ratings, the Bib Gourmand is a separate category that recognizes excellent cooking at more pocket-friendly prices. While a price limit on starred restaurants is non-existent (despite value for money being among deciding criteria) Bib Gourmand restaurants must offer a three-course meal for less than a certain price, which is set by local averages.

The Michelin Plate recognizes good food that is not quite of the same caliber as that served in Michelin-starred or Bib Gourmand restaurants but is still worthy of recognition. The title is awarded using the same criteria by the same judges; establishments will often enter the guide at this level before moving up based on a later inspection.

[See also: The Best Restaurants in London]

silo restaurant london
London’s Silo was one of the first restaurants in the UK to be awarded a new Green Michelin star, despite not having an original star / ©Claire Lewington

How to get a Green Michelin star

The Green Michelin star is separate from all of the guide’s other distinctions and is awarded only to those restaurants going above and beyond to operate in a way that is both ethical and environmentally friendly. Only those restaurants already in receipt of another Michelin award can receive a Green star, be it Michelin star, Bib Gourmand or Michelin Plate.

With the launch of the Green star the Michelin guide revealed that its inspectors do not follow specific criteria in awarding the title, given that each restaurant and region have unique conditions. However, the inspectors are likely to consider several factors including whether a restaurant uses local and seasonal ingredients, food waste levels and waste management, environmental footprint and supplier credentials.

See the full US Michelin guide here.

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