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This year’s Michelin Red Guide will soon be on stands. For those of you who might not be familiar with this particular food guide, it is considered by many worldwide to be the ultimate guide to fine dining. Chefs and their restaurants are given Michelin Stars according to diverse food quality, service, presentation and atmosphere criteria. The top honor is three Michelin Stars, followed by two and then one. A Rising Star award denotes a chef that is worth keeping your eye on for a future honor. A Michelin Star, at least in France, is the Oscar or the Nobel Price of the cooking world. A chef who gains the distinction of even one Star, thus giving his restaurant the designation of étoilé, will see his clientele and revenue skyrocket. It places a chef on another plain, a position of excellence and sacred notoriety. And to mark his achievement, with each star that a chef attains, he adds a stripe to the collar of his chef’s coat.

When I first came to France and heard about Michelin starred restaurants, I thought the whole things a little funny. I mean, really, I knew the Michelin Man from TV commercials selling tires. The Guide, I naively assumed, was a report on which restaurants along the highway one could rely on for a proper meal. Was I ever mistaken.

I was educated one night when my husband, new beau at the time, took me to Chez Benoît for dinner. Their maitre d’hôte explained the Michelin Star status of Benoît’s head chef, Alain Ducasse. And then I saw for myself: the service, the food, the three waiters and a sommelier expertly hovering around our table. As I glanced at my husband’s eyes when the bill came, it all became infinitely clear. This was not quite a guide for roadside diners, as I had thought.

The Michelin Red Guide is the mark of excellent, a competition that has the power to make or break an aspiring chef. It’s the New York Times Bestseller’s List of fine dining.

The Michelin Red Guide, or le Guide rouge as it is called here in France, is the oldest and most reputable guide to fine dining in Europe. As quick glance on Wikipedia tell us more:

“André Michelin published the first edition of the guide in 1900 to help drivers maintain their cars, find decent lodging, and eat well while touring France. It included addresses of filling stations, mechanics, and tire dealers, along with local prices for fuel, tires, and auto repairs.”

By the 1920s and 30s, the Guide had become the premier guide to fine dining and an edition was dedicated to its rankings.

“Gradually, additional guides were introduced for other European countries. By 2010, eight Red Guides were published for the countries of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium/Luxembourg, Italy, Spain & Portugal, Switzerland, and Great Britain & Ireland.

Red Guides are also published for selected major cities:  Paris,  London,  Tokyo,  Kyoto/Osaka,  Hokkaido, Hong Kong & Macau, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Las Vegas. There is also a Red Guide encompassing the ‘Main Cities of Europe.’

The guide awards one to three stars to a small number of restaurants of outstanding quality. One star indicates a “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-star ranking represents “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars are awarded to restaurants offering “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. A three-star Michelin ranking is rare. As of late 2009, there were 26 three-star restaurants in France, and only 81 in the world.”

This year has seen a few new introductions to the French Michelin Hall of Fame. Emmanuel Renaut of Flocons de Sel in Megève, France (east France in the Alps near Switzerland) is our new Three Star member. According to the Figaro newspaper, Renaut’s special blend of traditional French food in the backdrop of a log cabin setting, made the winning combination.

Some new Two Star talent include Thierry Marx of Mandarin Oriental Paris in the 1er arrondissement as well as Philippe Mille of Chateau Crayères in Reims, Jean-Luc Tartarin of his restaurant of the same name in Le Havre, and Kei Kobayashi of Restaurant Kei also in Paris’ 1er.

To illustrate the time and talent it takes to arrive at this gastronomic honor, on the rare occasion that a chef has what it takes to get there in the first place, is Mr. Marx’ story. With the childhood dream of becoming a baker, he left school to apprentice in a small-town bakery and then at 18 joined the navy for his mandatory service period. After, he worked in various restaurants around the globe, working his way from the dish pit to the sauce table to sous-chef. Returning to led the kitchen at Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac, France in 1994, he won his first Star in 1996, then his second in 2000. He has been a hopeful for a third Star since 2004. There’s no guarantee he’ll ever make it.

There are currently 27 chefs/restaurants in France and Monaco with the Three Star designation of which ten are located in Paris. About 130 restaurants hold a Michelin designation in the U.S. (either one, two or three), of which well over half (some 60-odd) are in New York City alone.

An article in the British paper The Independent provides an interesting run down on how the Stars are awarded:

“Some chefs spend much of their time seeking to achieve one, two or three stars, much as some ambitious MPs endlessly plot a ministerial future. A star is an international mark of a restaurant’s quality, even if some chefs and critics attack Michelin for encouraging an overly formal style of cooking. “M-Day” in mid-January is a nervous one in kitchens up and down the land.

Michelin inspectors visit each premises once every 18 months, unless it is moving up or down the ranks. A star candidate will receive four visits. A two-star restaurant receives 10 visits before becoming a three-star. Inspectors travel over from the Continent to ensure consistency. Visits take place anonymously and Michelin pays the bills. Inspectors are on the road three weeks out of four, staying in a different hotel every night and eating lunch and dinner at a different restaurant every day. They write a report on every meal. On one side of A4, they score service, décor and location, on the other they plot the quality of their meal on a graph.”

In the late 1980s, Patricia Wells wrote a book called The Food Lover’s Guide to France which follows the major themes of the Michelin Guides, although she includes all sorts of eateries, bakers, pastry shops, markets, butchers and cheese shops. Updated over the years, this guide and her The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris are excellent, thorough, insightful alternatives for the less fussy traveler in France.