The Michelin Guide to Potemkin Village: Follow the Inspectors to the Five Corners of the Earth.

I: The Michelin Inspectors: A Recent History

Hardly a week goes by when the International Director of the Michelin Guides Gwendal Poullennec reminds us that there is a veritable army of traveling inspectors combing through the guide’s international terrain in order to put a plate, a chops-licking Bibendum, or stars next to a restaurant’s name.

Because extant inspectors operate anonymously (although many chefs can spot one walking through the door), no one can exact much information about how many of them there are, who they are, where they go, or their experience or qualifications. Although inspectors are becoming an anachronism in the Internet age, Michelin tenaciously trumpets them because they are what distinguishes it from nearly all other ratings and rank-order restaurant guides that use anyone who wants to play restaurant reviewer (TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Instagram) or ardent gastronomes and culinary professionals (OAD, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and long-established guidebooks that used to be print-only) or computerized hands-off print and on-line measurement algorithms (La Liste 1000).

That Michelin inspectors are no longer seen as having the last word in restaurant ratings hasn’t always been so. Beginning in 1933 when the three-stars protocol began, Michelin’s coverage was limited to Paris, the Côte d’Azur and points in-between. As its coverage of France expanded to involve the entire country, so did the number of inspectors, which Michelin could afford since the guide business was part of the tire manufacturer Groupe Michelin. Until very late in the 20th-century, sizing-up restaurants in France (and everywhere else for that matter) was less complicated than it is now. While some chefs at that time were conceptually adventuresome, they were still strongly grounded in classic French cuisine, particularly those who received two or three stars. As for other chefs who received one star or red “R”s, signifying well-prepared meals at a modest price, they mostly served classic or traditional French food largely of the region they were in. Today, however, a diner in upper-echelon restaurants confronts relatively free-form cooking that can be a mix of New World, Old World and Asian cuisines, the use of industrial or chemical products, and a myriad of inconsistent hit and miss courses conceived to be in small portions, all of which complicate judgments, consensus and ratings.

Until 2004 when Pascal Remy, a Michelin inspector, wrote the book “L’Inspecteur se met à table”, no one questioned Michelin’s inspector protocol. That the tire company formed in 2000 a wholly owned subsidiary, Michelin Travel Partner, may have resulted in economies that included the number of inspectors on the payroll. What no one can deny, however, is that inspectors cost a lot of money and bring in no revenue. An educated guess of the cost is around $100,000 a year per inspector based on a modest salary; automobile expenses; lodgings; and restaurant meals of which there are two a day for at least 30 weeks a year. How many world-wide inspectors are Michelin employees is a secret and, according to Poullennec in the recently published book “M: Le grand livre du Guide Michelin”, it’s the tire company that now pays for them.

II. “M. Le grand livre du Guide Michelin”: Inspector Deception.

The overwhelming degree to which Poullennec is obsessed with convincing the dining world that his inspectors produce the ultimate word in restaurant ratings is on full display in this “grand livre”. A 384-page book that invites readers to follow the Michelin inspectors to the “four corners of the earth”, it is a ham-handed, indeed deceptive, glorification of Michelin inspectors. Poullennec tries to convince the culinary world that “Le grand livre” is based on following Michelin inspectors around various countries, cities and regions sharing their knowledge and discoveries. In truth, the book’s editorial overseer chose 13 culinary writers and journalists who suggested specific topics from a list of locations, none of whom met any inspectors during the research and the writing of (if I count correctly) 322 essays. Then, so that the unquestioning reader will naively think the inspectors set foot in the corresponding places and may have written the essays, Michelin did not have any of the short but informative articles signed by their authors. It appears to me that the raison d’ être for the book is as much to convince the world that there is an omnipresent core of inspectors than it is of presenting the culinary features of the places it covers.

In the light of Michelin’s declining fortunes, Poullennec sets out in the book’s front matter to glorify and romanticize the Michelin inspector. “Let’s dispel ourselves of the Épinal print (French 19th color prints depicting everyday life) of an inspector of a certain age depicted as dressed to the nines and whose love for good food is betrayed by his small stomach. Of course, you need to be a bon vivant to execute this trade, which is a passion” …”Above all, we come from the four corners of the world. One in San Francisco, another in Shanghai, and another in Paris. All of us explore the cuisines of the world researching THE good address for you … we should know that the inspector’s five senses are on permanent alert. That is how we start out on the hunt for the stars” and  “We are obligated to try everything and adapt ourselves to all kinds of tastes, even those that at first seem the most incongruous. Think of our travel notebooks as being filled with anecdotes, meetings and memories!”

As prerequisites, inspectors need “a sharp palate and be able to ignore personal taste. He must know how to put himself in the skin of Mr. Everybody. And proceed with the most objective evaluations possible. A solid knowledge of products, terroir and culinary culture is equally necessary since the quality of the produce is one of the five criteria on which his inspection is based, the others being an analysis of the cooking; taking in the texture of a dish; describing the presentation; harmonies of flavors; and perceiving the chef’s emotions he wishes to transmit” (sic). We also learn that an inspector’s life is hectic; three weeks a month on the road looking for new addresses and “to confirm the selection or removal of an establishment”. He then spends the fourth week in Paris (for the French guide) going over his road work with Poullennec and giving his reports to the editors who write the restaurant descriptions. The attribution of the stars takes place in meetings with the editor-in-chief of the guide; the relevant inspectors and Poullennec. “The decision to grant or not grant one or several stars is made in a collegial manner. If the inspectors disagree as to the classification of a restaurant, new visits are organized”,

The culinary commentator Roger Feuilly wrote almost a year ago in his site “Le Blog de Tout n’est que Litres et Ratures”….”What we do not know is the number of inspectors who work for this now-labyrinthian publishing house—no less than 30 publications-nor what are the ethics and the instructions given to the detriment of transparency that the times impose such as in making the recent decisions to remove stars from certain restaurants (Le Carré des Feuillants and Le Trou Gascon in Paris, L’Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace)” Read his post here.

So misleading and ambiguous are Poullennec’s exhortations about inspectors that you don’t need to look further than just one sentence from “Le Grand Livre”. He implies that the inspectors vet the nearly 4000 restaurants in France that are on the ViaMichelin website along with going to new addresses. “Le grand livre” is riddled with sloppy proofreading, among them apparently being this puzzling, all-over-the-place sentence: “an inspector eats around 250 meals a year in anonymity, spends 150 nights a year in hotels, effectuates 600 visits and supplies more than 1000 edited reports”. Then this past May in an interview with the site “Fine Dining Lovers”, Poullennec refers to an international “workforce of 500 inspectors” without stating if they are full-time and on the Michelin payroll. If they are, it would cost $5,000,000 for the final annual product, the emptiness of which I discuss below.

Ever since the Pascal Remy book appeared 16 years ago, there have been statements and rumors galore about supposed inspections and inspectors. One competitor, Gilles Pudlowski, publisher of the “Pudlo” guides stated in 2014 that Michelin additionally relies on renown chefs for ratings; Alain Ducasse and the late Joel Robuchon are among those mentioned in other accounts, as is Massimo Buttera for the Italy guide. In Spain Rafael Anson, head of the “Real Academia Española de Gastronomia, is rumored to play a large single-handed role in the distribution of stars in the Spain Guide. The Michelin Travel Partner U.K. shows only eight employees, four of which are in sales and marketing. A restaurateur in Seoul is suing Michelin for being shaken down in a cash-for-stars scheme. Restaurant staffers in Paris have said that bloggers are doing the work of inspectors. The bloggers openly brag about it and proudly pay some of the bill themselves. Contrary to Poullennec saying that the tire company Groupe Michelin pays for the inspectors, according to Caroline Beteta, the head of Visit California which commissioned Michelin to produce its Michelin California restaurant guide, the $600,000 it paid to Michelin Travel Partner is earmarked for hiring inspectors rather than, one would assume, to the costs of producing the guide itself.

Regardless of how many inspectors there may be, how they conduct inspections calls into question the necessity of this supposedly expansive, authoritative inspector network. Recent descriptions of how inspectors go about their work state that they dine alone and anonymously, visit most restaurants one time for one meal and reveal their role if they want further information from the chef. Since the descriptions of each restaurant isn’t dated, the reader has no idea when an inspector was last there, which might be longer than one year, and therefore how up to date the description is. Given the dynamic nature of restaurants that are subject, sometimes suddenly, to a myriad of culinary, financial and personnel manifestations, one visit from one inspector even yearly is inadequate, the exception being when a two-or-three-star restaurant is a candidate for a promotion or downgrade when guide executives make additional visits according to Michelin. Worth noting as well is that Michelin no longer mentions the three-month inspector training program in France it once had, let alone the five-year training program that existed some decades ago. Read details here.

Because of their anonymity, we know nothing about the inspectors. Poullennec says they are former employees of the hotel and restaurant trade. They are reputedly young and work for little money. Some of them stay with Michelin a short time and then turn into restaurant consultants. (Read more here.). This vagueness and secrecy turn Michelin inspectors into window dressing with the ratings or designations determined often, if not mostly, from other sources.

There are many restaurant guides that use more transparent means to evaluate restaurants. Among those that make use of dedicated amateurs and culinary professions are Gilles Pudlowski, publisher of “Guide Pudlo Paris” who has a network of trusted friends, acquaintances, and restaurateurs; the “British Good Food Guide”, which relies on serious diners whom they reimburse for their meals; and the Italian “Identita Golose”, which posts photos and short bios of 111 collaborators of varying ages who range from amateur gastronomic travelers to professional journalists, bloggers and wine and restaurant professionals.

III. The Finished Product: An Exercise in Uselessness.

Most telling about Michelin’s supposed inspectors is what the users ultimately see on its websites and in its guides. Is it really possible to spend supposedly so much time, energy and money—the racing around, the intensive note-taking, the expenses, and the meetings- to end up with putting a number or a symbol to a name and writing the Michelin Inspector descriptions that are never more than 50 or so words, which is the shortest of any restaurant guidebook, and dull as dishwater? Almost all have trite and hackneyed declarative sentences that read as if they have been lifted from the restaurant’s website or provided by its PR company; and there is not, according to the guide, even a so-so restaurant among the nearly 4000 restaurants in France or everywhere else Michelin covers. Also, there is usually not much discernible qualitative difference between the prose for a Michelin Plate restaurant and a three star one. For example, here is the inspector’s comments of Les Prés d’Eugénie-Restaurant Michel Guerard, the three-star restaurant of, many would agree, the greatest living chef in France:

“One of the founding fathers of Nouvelle Cuisine! The dishes served here are delicate, light and inventive… a veritable ode to flavours, simply prepared. The magical setting, which makes for a truly bucolic retreat, deserves a special mention.”

Equally vague and uninspiring is this report on Mirazur, the current “numero uno” on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant rank-order list:

Inside this building that looks out onto the blue skies and the Mediterranean, Mauro Colagreco is at the top of his game. The Argentine chef’s cuisine speaks for itself: a unique and daily ode to aromatic plants, flowers, vegetables from his garden and citrus fruits. An incomparable moment guaranteed.

Or Guy Savoy, co-number one with Le Bernardin, NY, on La Liste 1000:

Guy Savoy, act II, in the Hôtel de la Monnaie, on the bank of the Seine. The setting is sumptuous – six rooms adorned with contemporary works lent by François Pinault –, and the host, true to himself: sincere and passionate, inventive without excess, unfailing generosity. Irresistible!

The long-time culinary historic monument Alain Passard’s Restaurant L’Arpege merits these 34 words that could be taken from just about anywhere:

Precious woods and a Lalique crystal decor provide the backdrop for the dazzling, vegetable – inspired cuisine of this culinary genius. He creates his astonishing dishes from organic produce grown in his three vegetable gardens!

Move down to the lowest rung, Michelin Plate, and you have this example from the Paris restaurant GrandCoeur:

Beams and bare stone, huge mirrors and mismatching furniture, without forgetting the unforgettable terrace – located in a courtyard, this establishment is distinctively stylish. The French cuisine with the occasional international twist is fresh and appetizing. Exquisite!

Or this, Bistro Paradis, Paris:

The bar that used to stand here has been replaced by this elegant, trendy bistro. It has a long and thin restaurant room with light wood fittings and Scandinavian furnishings.The Brazilian chef, formerly of Le Pario, marries French foundations and Latino ingredients. The result is flavoursome and particularly meticulous. One to try out ASAP!

More than once have I read that Poullennec states that the only factor that matters is the food on the plate. It’s something you could never divine from Michelin’s prose. What the inspectors fill their notebooks with apparently never makes it to the finished product. Some of the restaurant descriptions mention certain dishes or types of dishes, but never in detail. The major determinant of the ratings is restaurant politics of which Michelin aggressively avails itself. Poullennec has decided to orient the guides to a young, inexperienced audience and the “épater la bourgeoisie” kind of cuisine, which is why chefs who execute a classic or traditional French dish remain in the lower echelons of the Guide Michelin. For that, why say that the inspectors assess only the food on the plate?