As its first stars of the year are announced, we take a quick look at the travel handbook turned star-studded guide to dining well and its sometimes controversial journey so far

The Michelin Guide to fine dining, which has begun unveiling its 2019 edition this month, began recommending restaurants in France a century ago before branching out to become one of the most competitive international guides of its kind. The journey, though, has not been without a few unexpected twists and turns. 

Born On The Road

The red-covered guide is published by the French tyre manufacturer of the same name, its tyre-man mascot on the cover giving a hint of its origins. It was first published in France in 1900 when there were fewer than 3,000 automobiles on the roads but the prospects for car travel were promising.

To encourage motorists to take to the road and so boost their tyre-manufacturing business, brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin decided to print a travel guide. At first distributed for free, it included maps, a how-to on changing tyres, and lists of mechanics and hotels along the route.

The first run of 35,000 copies was such a success that guides for Belgium, Germany, Portugal and Spain followed.

(Related: The Michelin Guide Announces 2019 Stars For Hong Kong And Macau)

Coveted Stars

Michelin introduced restaurant listings in 1920, when it started charging for the guide, later sending out undercover inspectors. In the early 1930s came the ratings via a star hierarchy that developed into the highly competitive and coveted formula for which the guide is perhaps best known today.

One star indicates "A very good restaurant in its category"; two stars is for "Excellent cooking, worth a detour"; and three rates "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey".

Since 1997, Michelin has also been awarding a Bib Gourmand nod, which is not a star but designates an eatery offering excellent food at moderate prices. Of about 20,000 international restaurants listed, only around 100 have attained the highest distinction.

(Related: The Restaurants That Made It Into The Michelin Guide Singapore 2018)

Tatler Asia
Above The Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle stall has one Michelin star

Feeding Controversies 

The guide has been criticised as biased towards French cuisine and technique, and favouring—what some view as—snobby, formal dining.

In a seeming break from this tradition, in 2016 it awarded a star to a cheap Singapore street food outlet known for a braised chicken dish.

In 2004, an inspector for the France guide was sacked for publishing a book which said some chefs were treated as above criticism and there were too few inspectors on the job.

The following year Michelin took the unprecedented step of removing the Benelux version of its guide from bookshelves after it was revealed it included a rave review for a Belgian restaurant that was not even open for inspection.

(Related: More Affordable Eats Make It Into The Michelin Guide Singapore’s Bib Gourmand List)

Mounting Pressure

A handful of French restaurateurs have relinquished their prized three-star status because of the stress of being judged by its inspectors.

In January last year, the Michelin guide allowed, for the first time, three-starred French restaurant Le Suquet to withdraw from its listings after the chef, acclaimed French toque Sébastien Bras, said he no longer wanted to cook under the pressure.

The 2003 suicide of three-star chef Bernard Loiseau was linked, among other reasons, to France's system of intense gourmet critique. Star Swiss chef Benoit Violier of Restaurant de l’Hotel de Ville took his life in 2016 a day ahead of the release of the Michelin Guide. The restauarnt maintained its three-star rating.

Despite the intense pressure to perform, though, it seems there's no shortage of restaurants and chefs hungry to make their Michelin mark. 

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