In today’s on-line deluge of restaurant scores and rankings, the uniqueness of the Michelin Guides is supposedly their mythic inspection regime. Hardly a month goes by without someone, usually the young international director of the guides Gwendal Poullennec, reminding the restaurant world of some international army of full-time anonymous inspectors blanketing the Michelin Guide universe. Michelin does this honking every chance it gets in interviews with newspapers, magazines and major websites; creating stories such as what it is like to live the life of a Michelin inspector; and generally trying to convince us that its approach is the best and most trustworthy means of restaurant handicapping.
In the 119-year history of the Guide Michelin and the 86 years since it began awarding restaurants three-stars in France, the use of full-time inspectors didn’t begin until the early 1950s. The authoritative history of the Michelin Guide Trois Etoiles au Michelin, written by Jean-François Mesplede in 1998, only states that at some point soon after 1968 there was a team of 12 inspectors working the entire country. No one questioned the effectiveness or adequacy of the Michelin inspectors until 2004 when a rogue inspector, Pascal Rémy, wrote the tell-all book L’Inspecteur se met à table. Besides writing that some restaurants were untouchable and that many decisions were based on letters from readers, Rémy said that there were only five inspectors for all of France and that some restaurants were inspected once every three and a half years. As for Michelin’s claim that the inspector visits are anonymous and that the inspectors reveal their identity only after they have paid the bill so that they can ask questions, these supposedly anonymous visits come as no unexpected surprise to restaurant owners. Six years ago, in “Gastronomie” Magazine, two journalists identified ten of 13 inspectors, gave their names and work histories and published four photographs of a group of them gathered together for a dinner in Deauville. The article revealed how the chefs were able to know when an inspector had booked a table. Various tip-offs were a person booking a table for two and then changing the reservation to one person since Michelin inspectors always dine alone. At times when an employee took a reservation, but needed to call back because of missed information, he would use the number the call came from instead of the one the diner left. That number would be answered by the switchboard operator in the Michelin office. Employees who swiped the inspector’s credit card could see that the name of the cardholder (the inspector’s real name) was different than the one given for the reservation. And once an inspector identified himself, the chef would call his colleagues in the area and alert them to a possible visit from an inspector, passing along his phone number and the phony name for the booking..
Another questionable aspect of the inspection process is its perfunctory nature. Although restaurants that are on the cusp of receiving its third star have received many visits including those by executives such as the international guide director and the editor of the pertinent national guide, restaurants go for years without being inspected. Apparently two restaurants in France that were demoted from three stars to two in the 2019 guide didn’t receive any visits in the preceding year, according to their chefs. With the paucity of inspectors, one wonders how Michelin determines promotions on the lower echelons such as upgrades from Michelin Plate to one star. Director Poullennec also wants us to know about the rigorous three-month training (down from six) each new inspector receives in France. In the main, however, restaurants receive mostly infrequent visits, but what is as perplexing is how does a single visit from a single inspection qualify as a thorough vetting? We all know that a chef isn’t in attendance for every meal and therefore may not have prepared the meal the inspector ate. Also, restaurants are dynamic and subject to inconsistencies one day to the next. Many of the restaurants most people would want to visit have been vetted by newspaper reviewers who may have recently had four or five meals with three or four other people and ordering most or all of what comes out of the kitchen as opposed to the one tasting menu meal one inspector has. And because the Michelin Guides are annual affairs, one never knows how much time has passed between the inspection and the publishing date of the guide. Finally, because the reviews and possible inspections are anonymous, there is no way of knowing if an inspector set foot inside a restaurant, but rather has read a menu on-line and compiled and rewrote the guides’ trite, platitudinous commentary cobbled together from any number of websites.
As with many enterprises and organizations, there is much to learn by “following the money”, which doing so results in the most cogent reason Poullennec and others keep hammering away in opaque fashion about Michelin’s inspectors and its resulting claim about the superiority and reliability of its ratings.
Prior to 2000, the Michelin guide and maps were woven into the Michelin Tire Company (SCA Compagnie Générale des Établissements Michelin) until it formed the subsidiary Michelin Travel Partner (“MTP”). While the tire company has subsidized MTP by providing loans, sometimes dictating policy and choosing its CEO, currently Pascal Couasnon, plucked from Michelin’s Motorsports Division, MTP in terms of finances and accounting is a separate entity. Until last year, when it reported a small profit of about $4,000,000 on total income of just over $100,000,000, it never in its prior 18 years produced a profit. In the middle of this decade, apparently on the advice of the management consulting firm Accenture, it went on a questionable acquisitions spree to orient it towards on-line services and gastronomic resources, most notably 40% interests in Robert Parker’s “The Wine Advocate” and the restaurant guide “Le Fooding”, as well as paying up for secondary on-line booking properties “Bookatable” and Tablet Hotels. MTP is far from having a clean balance sheet and is heavily reliant on finding tourism bodies such as “Visit California’ and those based in Thailand, Hong Kong and Korea among others with which they have made substantial (and often-criticized) guide-publishing deals. https://michelinscars.com/2019/07/24/michelin-misguided-1-the-asian-fiasco-as-reported-in-les-echos/ while the French company-information portal societé.com evaluated MTP’s company rating, financial equilibrium and profitability as all unfavorable.
One can easily make the argument that MTP’s biggest asset is what exists in American and British accounting as “good will” or intangible assets. In Michelin’s case, its most valuable intangible is the expression “Michelin-starred restaurant” or “Michelin-starred chef”, a holdover from the pre-internet times when Michelin was the proverbial gold standard in restaurant ratings that were to a much larger degree based on anonymous inspections. It is this historical designation that is deeply ingrained in the food world that attracts travel and tourism organizations to use Michelin to exploit the growing phenomenon of gastronomic indulgence and sightseeing.
Yet, it is the internet that imperils Michelin. Until the latter part of the 20th-century, people had to pay for Michelin’s information by buying their guidebooks, the print run of each is now a small fraction of what it used to be. Today it is available for free on the ViaMIchelin website. Recent surveys into how people choose where to dine show Michelin far behind consensus and social media websites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and Instagram and, more recently, having to further compete with rank-order projects such as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, La Liste 1000, and Opinionated About Dining (OAD). Apparently, consumers have a fondness for rank-order lists and seeing a name attached to a review or recommendation or relying on a qualified reviewer or a prestigious media source. Still, because of Michelin’s historic anonymous inspection regime, it wants us to believe that this is how they still vet restaurants to determine the rating of each one. Yet, the bottom line is this: Michelin can’t afford a meaningful number of full-time inspectors. Keeping one on the road with paying for meals, lodging, transportation and a parsimonious salary that Michelin pays its inspectors likely comes close to $100,000 a year for each inspector when it brings in no revenue and produces results that are indistinguishable, or no more useful, than those of other resources that are as similarly regarded and more-widely followed.
This past May in an article with a reporter from the blog “Fine Dining Lovers”, Poullennec said that there was a workforce of 500 inspectors, an assertion that is preposterous if he means 500 people who are full-time and have attended Michelin’s training course in France. One, therefore, can only conclude that what redefines a Michelin inspector are bloggers, Michelin employees and then some. Rumor has it that, first, Michelin doesn’t fully reimburse bloggers since they are pleased or honored to be considered Michelin Inspectors; second, that Michelin solicits opinions from chefs, some of whom have been reported to vet the ratings; and, third, that wealthy, regular restaurant clients with day jobs are declaring to restaurant personnel that they are acting as Michelin inspectors. Regardless, it’s another manifestation that has knowledgeable people questioning Michelin Travel Partner’s influence and long-term survival as a trustworthy guide to international restaurant-going.