The Michelin Star Story

The content below is from Episode 102 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This week’s recommendation is a movie: Midnight in Paris.
    • This hollywood film takes a page out of the European film playbook. I felt like I was watching a French film with hollywood actors and budget.
    • Owen Wilson plays a writer who is in love with the past and the city of Paris. While on vacation with his unloving wife and his dreaded in-laws he gets a little wine drunk. Stumbling through the streets of Paris at night he is transported to 1920’s Paris where he meets all of his writer and artist idols.


  • This week’s episode is about the Michelin Star rating system for restaurants and why the most prestigous rating system for food is operated by a tire company.
  • First, what is a Michelin Star?
    • Well Michelin employs people they call inspectors to critique food in restaurants all across the world. If they are sufficiently impressed they award stars known as Michelin Stars to the restaurant. They either award 1 star, 2 stars, 3 stars, or no stars.
    • Restaurants that receive a Michelin Star for the first time can expect a flood of food tourists while losing a Michelin Star devastates chefs. Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef who makes young chefs weep on his show Hell’s Kitchen, cried when he lost two Michelin Stars in 2013. 
    • And this is all a bit odd, because Michelin is a tire company whose annual reports highlight the cost of rubber and growth in the passenger car market. 
    • While there is a 3 star system with 3 stars being better than 2 and 2 stars better than 1, it is incredible to get just 1 star. Only the tippy top restaurants in the world qualify for any stars at all.
      • Getting 1 star is like a life-time goal for most chefs.
    • Here is the super subjective qualifying criteria:
      • To earn one Michelin star, a restaurant needs to be “a very good restaurant in this category”.
      • For two stars, it needs to be “excellent cooking, worth a detour”.
      • For three stars, a restaurant must serve “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” 


  • This all started in 1895 when there less than 1,000 cars driving around Franch. Those few cars were rarely driven because maintenance for a car was very inconvenient and expensive. Like fine dining, driving a car was a luxury.
    • This was an issue for the Michelin brothers Edouard and Andre. They had just developed a new kind of tire, one that was air-filled and easy to replace as opposed to the standard tire of the time which needed to be glued on (if you can believe it). The Michelin brothers wanted to drive up the number of cars and the amount of miles being driven. More cars and more miles meant tires needed to be replaced more often.
    • In order to get more cars on the road and sell more tires they had a 400 page guide printed up. This guide was full of helpful and fun information for those who liked to tour France. It highlighted towns and cities that were accessible by car and also included where people could get their vehicles serviced or fill up with gas.
      • Service and gas stations were few and far between. Only certain pharmacies has gasoline at the time.
      • Most relevant to our topic, the guide included restaurants and hotels that Michelin thought were worth visiting.
    • The response from the public was that the guide was a smash hit. The loved it. The more restaurants they rated, the further people drove to check them out and the sooner their tires needed replacing.
      • It is considered one of the best Public Relations tactics to date.
    • The Red Guide book started to come out in the early 1900’s. The goal was to give the public a reason to drive more and it worked.
      • Two brothers who designed and made tires created a cultural boom for their country’s tourism.

“From an image standpoint, it certainly has helped as a halo for a tire brand. Because tires, of course, aren’t the sexiest product,” Tony Fouladpour, Michelin North America’s director of corporate public relations, told Business Insider.

From the Facebook account History Cool Kids:

The original Michelin Man from 1894.⁣

The Michelin Man is white because rubber tires are naturally white. It was not until 1912, that carbon chemicals were mixed into the white tires, which turned them black. The change was structural, not aesthetic. By adding carbon, tires became more durable.⁣

The star system that Michelin uses goes up to three and is broken down by whether or not it’s worth driving to the restaurant.

One star: “A very good restaurant in its category” (Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie)⁣

Two star: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (Table excellente, mérite un détour)⁣

Three star: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage).⁣

  • As the tire company grew, so did their guide. They launched country-specific editions throughout Europe that became popular enough to compel the brothers to start charging for the booklets in 1920.
    • In 1926, the guide expanded to the industry that made it famous — fine dining. Five years later, the three-star system was introduced.
    • As of September of 2021, there were 2,817 Michelin stars spread out across the entire globe according to Luxe.Digital
  • Today, Michelin continues to authoritatively judge restaurants in order to promote the company name. It’s a bit like if the Coca-Cola Company ran the Oscars, having created the ceremony in the 1920s so that people would go to the movies and drink more soda. It’s debatable whether the guide still helps Michelin sell tires, but Michelin’s ownership has been instrumental to the renown and authority of its restaurant guides. 


  • I don’t know about you, but to me it sounds like one hell of a job to travel around trying delicious food anonymously and writing about it in the most respected food critic guide in the world.
    • But apparently it isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Some Frenchy apparently said it is a sucky job… but compared to what? Working in an office all day? … I have my doubts.
  • But here is how the inspector job works:
    • Each region of the world is assigned an inspector who takes responsibility for finding the most pleasurable places to dine in their region.
    • Like I said, these inspectors are anonymous. They are forbidden to speak with the press or any major outlets outside of their families.
    • They all have a ton of experience in the restaurant business or culinary field. Most are retired chefs actually. And every one of them has to pass an official Michelin Guide training course only held in France.
  • These days the inspectors have the luxury of checking their phones for the hottest spots around, but back when the guide started it was much more adventurous… and tedious lol.
    • Inspectors only found restaurants by driving all the back streets of France or getting a tip via word-of-mouth about a nice restaurant.
  • Now these undercover Michelin inspectors are a bit different from your typical food critics.
    • They don’t take notes. They simply soak up the experience. Also, they don’t just visit once before passing judgement. They visit a restaurant multiple times to get a good sense of the place.
  • Some say this gig isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Pascal Rémy, a former French inspector for Michelin, released a book called “L’Inspecteur se Met à Table” (“The Inspector Sits at the Table”) back in 2004.
    • In this book Rémy says how the job is terribly lonely. On top of that he says inspectors don’t get paid nearly what they are owed and the standards of the Michelin star system have loosened up in recent decades. They have become lax.
    • In response, Michelin has denied most allegations made in the book, but do admit the job of a Michelin inspector isn’t as magnificent at one might imagine.


The Michelin Guide represents a minute fraction of a massive company and rather than being profitable, it is mostly a brand-building tool and a way to build on a tradition rooted in the company’s founders.

Michelin is aware that even though the guide is gaining recognition in the US, many do not make the connection between it and the tire company.

  • I personally had never even heard of the Michelin star rating system until I saw a movie about French cooking on Netflix just a year or two ago. It wasn’t until looking in to this podcast that I realized it was run by the same tire company.
    • When I first heard about the rating system I thought “Michelin? like the tire company? Nah, couldn’t be. That would be absurd.”
    • But it turns out they are one in the same.
  • The Michelin Star rating system that the world’s top chefs dream of was first created to get people to drive more so that more tires could be sold.
    • Now it has been wrapped in so much prestigue and elitism that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t help sell tires anymore. The star rating has become it’s own thing now.

“We can’t spend millions on a campaign telling people, ‘Hey, we’re the same company!'” Tony Fouladpour says, laughing. “But it’s nice when people make the connection. It’s only been 10 years [in America]. Let’s see what happens after 10 more.”

THANKS for listening (and reading) Who’d a Thunkers! Tune in next week.