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8 things you need to know about the Michelin Guide

Monday, November 30, 2015 - 17:22
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A journalist takes a picture of a " Bibendum ", symbol of the Michelin tyre company, during the presentation of Germany's Michelin Guide 2016 in Berlin.

LET the battle for stars begin. On Monday, the arbiters of what makes for good eats said that Singapore will get its very own Michelin Guide in the second half of 2016. The guide will be in both English and Chinese.

While most of us might be familiar with the one-, two-, three-star pecking order of approval that dominates the culinary scene, the Michelin Man has a long and chequered past.

The next time you dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant here, regale your party with some of these juicy facts over your amuse-bouche:

1. The Michelin Guide has some pretty inedible origins.

The guide got its start from the tyre business, actually (how many reviewers have to avoid describing the food as "rubbery", we wonder).The brothers who started the guide, Edouard and Andre Michelin, were makers of pneumatic tyres, and they began compiling the guide in 1900 so that road-weary travellers could find places to eat after a day of tootling down the country lanes of France.

2. The guide had a cameo in WWII.

The publication of the guide was suspended in World War II, but Michelin's 1939 guide to France was specially resurrected and reprinted for military use in 1944 at the request of the Allied Forces, because the guide's maps were considered the best and most up-to-date.

3. The Michelin guide was not always red, and was free at one point.

In fact, the books started out with blue covers. Its first print run saw 35,000 copies and they were free. Legend had it that this all changed when the Michelin brothers saw that someone had used a stack of the guides to unceremoniously prop up a garage workbench. People only value things that cost something*, they must have reasoned, and et voila, they began charging 7 French francs per copy for the guide.
*A strategy duly adopted by all restaurants that serve foam at S$50 a pop, no doubt.)

4. Today, at least two of the cheapest Michelin-star restaurants are in Asia.

Most foodies worth their dumplings know that Hong Kong's Tim Ho Wan can claim to be the cheapest starred restaurant. At the dim sum restaurant's Mongkok branch, it is actually possible to eat well for less than US$15 a head. Another Michelin-star experience that won't break the bank can be had at Tokyo's one-star Nakajima, which serves set menu lunches for 800 yen (US$6.50).

5. Not all chefs want a Michelin star.

Sometimes, the pressure is too much. In 2013, chef Julio Biosca returned the Michelin star that his restaurant, Caso Julio in Spain, held. In an interview, Mr Biosca said that he didn't have a problem with the publication, but with "the whole world that's generated around it". Another chef, Belgium's Frederick Dhooge, also hung up his star last year, trading it for the freedom to cook fried chicken if he so wanted. Another chef, Skye Gyngell in Australia, called the star "a curse" in an interview. "Since we got the star we've been rammed every single day, which is really hard for such a tiny restaurant. And we've had lots more complaints," she'd said. 

6. But every Michelin star is a big deal for the restaurant's bottom line.

According to The New Yorker, losing a Michelin star can see a restaurant's business dropping as much as 25 per cent. Conversely, Bernard Loiseau who had helmed the La Côte d'Or restaurant in Burgundy, saw his business increase by 60 per cent when he got his third star. Which bring us to the last point...

7. The whole thing can get pretty intense.

While Mr Loiseau's third star made his restaurant solidly profitable, the story came to a tragic end in 2003 when he shot himself at the age of 52. At the time, his restaurant had already been downgraded by Michelin's rival guide, Gault&Millau. On top of that, there were rumours that the restaurant was close to losing its third Michelin star. Michelin denied this, but Mr Loiseau's death will always be associated with the overwrought business of hanging on to these fabled stars. Even Gordon Ramsay, legendary executor of the hairdryer treatment in the kitchen, cried over the loss of his New York restaurant's two Michelin stars.

8. Since those stars are so very coveted, here is what they mean:

One star for a very good restaurant in its category.

Two stars for a restaurant with excellent cooking, worth a detour.

Three stars for exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.

Bon appetit!

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