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Earning a Michelin star brings global accolades in the world of fine dining. To be listed, a restaurant not only needs to impress but perpetually maintain a stellar performance. While Michelin considers its exact scoring system classified information, inspectors likely frequent an establishment multiple times before awarding their decision—and they’re alleged to make return visits at least once every eighteen months to ensure excellent standards are maintained.

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Modern food reviews, such as those made by Michelin, stem from a long history of opinion pieces on eateries around the world. According to scholar Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, this practice dates as far back to the late-second/early-third century, when the Greek Athenaeus wrote Deipnosophistae—a compendium of texts related to preparing, eating, and enjoying food. Despite these ancient roots, modern food criticism is really a product of the nineteenth century, when urbanization and mobility coincided to affect the restaurant market. Ferguson explains how Michelin, known to many of us as a French tire company, became so influential in shaping the food industry in Europe and the United States in that era.

The first Michelin guide was originally a means of helping French consumers give a boost to the tourism industry, providing enough helpful information (where to buy tires, find a public toilet, and buy food) to encourage drivers to 1) take longer junkets in an automobile; and 2) visit more restaurants, inns, and public service areas while they were out and about. As a business model, the guides were wildly popular in Europe, evolving from a freely distributed guide into a hallmark of sophisticated cuisine.

But, as Ferguson explains, when the Michelin guide’s success inspired its arrival on the American food scene in 2005, it was met with a chilly reception. The guide was criticized for its inability to understand American—or more precisely, New York—expectations for a food experience. She points out that the American version of the guide became “positively chatty, certainly in comparison to the concision of the traditional French guide.” In addition, “unlike the conventionally austere [French] Michelin, which limited graphics to maps, the New York guide is highly visual.” A successful New York guide might include color photographs, recipes, menus, public transportation information, and even mini-histories of the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant.

In addition to style issues, “[d]eep-seated and recently revived prejudices against all things French had a lot to do with the chilly reception that Michelin received here,” writes Ferguson. Added to all that was also suspicion about Michelin’s claims to “rigor and impartiality.”

Three types of food critics exist in the post-Michelin world, explains Ferguson: the judge, tribunal, and plebiscite. The judge, caricatured as Anton Ego in the Disney blockbuster Ratatouille, is someone whose words hold great esteem in the restaurant industry. This is the critic whose authority precedes their review—and whose specific annotations around each eating experience are carefully deliberated and delivered. The tribunal—which includes the Michelin guide—lays claim to the “scientific method” of food reviews: they use one system and an “objective” set of criteria to examine a number of different restaurants, using anonymous visits to measure quality. Finally, the plebiscite takes its strength from the diners on the ground: the Yelp Elite, the Zagat zealots, the TripAdvisor troopers. Their reviews are likely the most influential for eating in the United States, where food culture rests on a reliance to diverse palates and experiences.

Plebiscite reviewers have especially gained traction in recent decades. Likely influenced by “big name” judges and empowered by the immediacy of social media, reviews by plebiscite draw their authority from their obvious subjectivity. According to information technology and sciences scholars William Aspray, Melissa G. Ocepek, and George Royer, such contributions now add their own contours to the world of food reviews: “where online users have authored reviews, such as in the cases of websites such as Yelp, many additional forces may be serving to shape the value of the source…forces such as identity formation, social capital, and regional bias may be at play, making them a very different kind of source.”

Setting the United States aside, a stack of Michelin stars might not wholly fit other international food review paradigms, either. In 2020, Michelin acknowledged its contributions to existing socioeconomic disparities within the overall restaurant industry—adding to an overall wave of recognition that food highlights existing power dynamics at the international level. However, it’s unlikely French cuisine will lose its status as fine-dining canon in the near future. Michelin guides will continue to influence how we think about what we eat.

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Gastronomica, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter 2008), pp. 49–55
University of California Press
Information & Culture, Vol. 49, No. 4 (2014), pp. 492-525
University of Texas Press