Since the Michelin Guide was created in 1926, it has awarded about 3,000 stars to select restaurants around the world. And while Michelin has a ton of brand recognition, the system it uses to rate restaurants is also famously secretive. Today on The Sporkful, we pull back the curtain on the guide and speak with a former Michelin inspector about his experience handing out stars. Then we talk with Erika Adams, editor of Eater Boston, about the surprising reason why her city has no restaurants with stars. It’s not because Boston restaurants aren’t up to snuff — and in fact, the answer reveals bigger questions about Michelin’s approach.
Also featured in this episode is Chef Vijay Kumar of the restaurant Semma in New York City (pictured above, center, with his colleagues at Unapologetic Foods: Roni Mazumdar, right, and Chef Chintan Pandya).
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, Jared O'Connell, and Julia Russo.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Dream Houses" by Hayley Briasco
- "Feel Real Good" by William Van De Crommert
- "Burley Cue" by Steve Pierson
- "Beep Boop" by Dylan Myers
- "Gravity" by Hayley Briasco
- "Hennepin" by James Buckley and Brian Bradley
- "All Black" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Vijay Kumar.
CLIP (ANNOUNCER): It’s time to announce New York’s Michelin starred restaurants.
Dan Pashman: Last year, chef Vijay Kumar was at the Michelin Guide ceremony in New York, where Michelin awards their famous stars. Vijay thought maybe his restaurant, Semma, was in the running. So as they read out the list of winners …
Vijay Kumar: Like you could tell my legs were kind of shivering because they were reading all the list alphabetically.
CLIP (ANNOUNCER): 63 Clinton ...
Vijay Kumar: So Semma is like all the way in the bottom. So it was like by the time they were reading all the list … Oh my God, that was super, super stressful. I almost got a heart attack.
Dan Pashman: Vijay grew up in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. After going to culinary school and working in a couple different restaurants there, he made his way to California. In 2021, he moved to New York to become executive chef at Semma, which would be a brand new restaurant, serving authentic regional south Indian cuisine in a fine dining setting. And when it opened, Semma was a big hit but at the Michelin ceremony, Vijay didn’t know what to expect. He wasn’t sure whether his restaurant was Michelin material. The announcers at the event worked their way through the alphabet …
CLIP (ANNOUNCER): Here we go ...
Vijay Kumar: So then finally, they are reading all the letters from A to B …
CLIP (ANNOUNCER): SEMMA!
CLIP (ANNOUNCER): Chef Vijay Kumar!
Vijay Kumar: I was like, "Oh my God!". [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: So what did it mean to you to win that award, especially for cooking hardcore South Indian food?
Vijay Kumar: I feel like it's like a victory for regional Indian food. This is not just for me, this is for my country. I completely dedicate this to my country, my cuisine, for everyone. So I feel like I think it's still a long, long way to go. This is just the beginning. I think there's so much responsibility that we can push it more forward.
Dan Pashman: Before the Michelin star, Semma’s business was already good. But after the star, Vijay says the average number of people on the waitlist for a last minute reservation went from 700 per night to 1400. That same year, about 500 other restaurants around the world were awarded Michelin stars for the first time. And just a few weeks ago, the Guide made its announcements for New York, D.C., and Chicago — and Semma kept its star. The stars clearly boost a restaurant’s business, and can cement a chef’s reputation as one of the best.
Dan Pashman: But in recent years, questions have arisen about Michelin’s process. Semma is one of only three Indian restaurants in America with a star — most of the winners are European or Japanese restaurants. And there are whole cities that don’t have any stars, like Philadelphia, Houston, and Seattle. Today we’ll ask, how does the Michelin Guide actually work — and is it a system diners should trust?
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Even if you’ve never eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant, you’re probably aware of the stars’ significance. They’re often referenced in shows where characters are working in, or eating at, high end restaurants …
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Dan Pashman: But for all of the airplay that Michelin stars get we don’t really know much about them. The Guide’s rating system is secretive. All of its inspectors have to remain entirely anonymous during their tenure, anyway. I was able to talk with one.
Chris Watson: Chris Watson, former Michelin Inspector.
Dan Pashman: Chris was a Michelin Inspector in the U.K. in the ‘80s. Now he lives in Thailand, where he operates a food guide called Thailand’s Favorite Restaurants. He also owns a consulting company for restaurants and hotels looking to earn Michelin stars.
Dan Pashman: Chris grew up on the west coast of Scotland. He liked the idea of going into hospitality, figured he’d become a hotel manager. Then he saw an ad in the paper for a different side of the hospitality business — Michelin was hiring a new inspector for the U.K.
Chris Watson: I knew a little bit about the Michelin guide, but not huge amounts. But they get thousands of applications for arguably one position.
Dan Pashman: Chris applied, and quickly learned that the vetting for this position was intense.
Chris Watson: Think a 150 question, multiple choice paper asking, "How do you make a Bernaise sauce? What’s Tournedos Rossini?". So the questions fundamentally came back to the kind of the repertoire de la cuisine or Escoffier.
Dan Pashman: In other words, high end European fine dining type questions. Michelin rejected Chris the first time. The following year, he took the test again, and this time he was hired. But just because he passed, didn’t mean he was ready to dole out stars quite yet. First, he had to train under a more experienced inspector, traveling across the U.K.
Chris Watson: You spend 6 to 9 months in a car with a work colleague, who you have zero relationship with and nothing in common but probably a love for food and wine. And you're thrown together in the front of a car, and you spend arguably more time than you would with your significant other. What they are kind of seeking is something that is quite elusive. It's people with a very neutral palate who don't have likes or dislikes but have a general appreciation for food.
Dan Pashman: Chris says he was trained to be a replica of the inspector teaching him, so he could evaluate restaurants in the exact same way as other Michelin inspectors.
Chris Watson: They're not looking for innovation. They're not looking for a different perspective. They're looking for similarity in everything. So one Michelin inspector eats a dinner in a restaurant, and the following night, another inspector goes and eats exactly the same meal in exactly the same restaurant and the result should be the same. Constantly, your senior inspector is asking you, "What do you think of this? Why would this not be a two star? Why would this not be a one star?”
Dan Pashman: Michelin’s restaurant ratings all began with the Michelin Tire Company, which was started by two brothers in France in 1889.
Dan Pashman: First they made parts for horse carriages, then bicycle tires, and eventually car tires. To promote tire sales, the brothers created a small red guide with maps, information on how to change a tire, and where to fill up with fuel. Eventually, the guide expanded to include a list of recommended hotels and restaurants in Paris. And then, in 1926, the guide began to award stars to fine dining establishments, at first marking them only with a single star. Then a few years later, they introduced a hierarchy of one, two, and three stars.
Dan Pashman: The Michelin brothers said that a one star restaurant had high quality cooking, worth a stop. Two stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour. Three stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a journey. And that rubric has stuck to this day. Chris describes the differences in a little more detail …
Chris Watson: A one star level should have chef's personality on the plate. You're looking for a level of talent in the cooking, faultless. When you move up the ladder, you're looking for more complexity. So on a two star plate, you're looking for maybe a little bit of innovation in terms of the combinations. You're looking for a much more complex presentation. The difference between two stars and three stars in terms of the plate, marginal. I think that Michelin have always kind of made it clear that it's about consistency.
Dan Pashman: In other words, Chris says, moving from two to three stars is less about a jump in quality, more about showing you can maintain that two star level for years. For places that already have stars, Michelin still reviews them every year to see if they should gain, or lose, a star. As for places without stars, to have a shot, they first have to get on Michelin’s radar. Chris says Michelin will reach out to locals in a food scene and to area tourist boards for recommendations. Based on that input, their inspectors dine at a bunch of places, evaluating every detail …
Chris Watson: Your arrival experience, welcome through the door, if you are offered an amuse bouche, small welcome drink, escorted directly to the table, do they assist with the chair. Is there some level of professionalism and efficiency? Obviously, appearance of staff, attire, how they speak. What’s their knowledge of the menu? Ask them about a certain course, I'm talking about the knowledge of the dish composition. Is this spicy? How’s this presented? How is this cooked? And can I have the lamb rare? Efficiency taking an order, whether there be any options or any choices. And then the arrival of the first dish. Looking at the dish itself, was it complex? Did it look tidy? Was the plate clean? Of course, technical, you know, scallop just cooked. Still a little bit shiny, little bit translucent in the middle, you know, overcooked, undercooked. Neither works. Perfection. Temperature of the dish, and ...
Dan Pashman: See Chris, now the inspector has come out.
Chris Watson: Look, the sad thing is that you can never lose that. When you go into restaurants socially, just wife, family, you keep looking around and subconsciously grading the place. You walk into a restaurant and, you know. You just know.
Dan Pashman: But the final call isn’t up to just one inspector, though. If the first inspector thinks a place warrants recognition, Michelin sends others to double check. Every year, Chris and his colleagues would get together and discuss their recommendations for the Guide.
Chris Watson: Do we disagree? Of course, healthy disagreement. But because of that incredible training program, invariably we're pretty well aligned. It would be very rare for three or four inspectors to say, "I think it's gotta go." And two inspectors say, "No, we had a fabulous experience."
Dan Pashman: How do you feel today looking back about how they do it? How do you feel about the quality of the process?
Chris Watson: You know, I'm super loyal to the guide, and I think they do a fabulous job. Like anything they are human and guides make mistakes. I think that their process, the anonymity — they've got such integrity.
Dan Pashman: But as I said to Chris, I was curious about this idea that each inspector is trained to be a replica of the inspector who came before. If the guide started with French cuisine and for decades after kept its focus on western Europe, and each new inspector is trained to have the same palate as the last one …
Dan Pashman: How much of a concern is it to you that you're going that perhaps unwittingly the inspectors are going to have a kind of built-in bias towards European cuisines or towards certain types of cuisines?
Chris Watson: I'd probably be upfront in saying that my knowledge of ethnic cuisine in those days was much, much less than today. There was a little bit of a rumble when Michelin launched the Japanese guides and there were a number of different restaurants rated with three stars, and the Tokyo Chef community questioned the fact that no Japanese inspectors rating Japanese restaurants was a little bit worrying, but they weathered the storm.
Dan Pashman: Now we should say, Chris was an inspector in the '80s, and it’s possible things have changed since. But he’s one of only a few former Michelin inspectors who has talked to the press on the record. We did reach out to Michelin to see if this is still how their inspection process works, but they didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Dan Pashman: So overall, Chris is pretty much on board with the way the Michelin Guide hands out their stars, with the whole process. But not everyone feels the same. I talked with Erika Adams, editor of Eater Boston.
Dan Pashman: In Boston, there's not a single restaurant with a Michelin star, Erika?
Erika Adams: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Why is that? Is it just that the restaurants there aren't good enough?
Erika Adams: [LAUGHS] That's what I kept hearing. That's how people kept phrasing that question to me. And I hear the stereotype over and over about how Boston's dining scene sucks. It doesn't even have a Michelin guide. And I'm like, that's not ... That's not how it works. That's not how it works.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Erika tells us how it does work, and why she thinks it should work differently. Stick around.
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Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week was our Salad Spinner Year in Food episode and we had a lot of fun with our rapid fire roundtable discussion of food news. We looked at the biggest, strangest, and most surprising stories from the past year with Jaya Saxana from Eater, and Zach Stafford, one of the hosts of the podcast Vibe Check.
Dan Pashman: And there were a lot of food stories from this past year that I had kind of forgot about, like when Starbucks debuted their olive oil coffee, or when McDonalds created a Grimace shake, and the internet decided that Grimace is a queer icon.
CLIP (ZACH STAFFORD): As a fellow member of the LGBTQ community I did not go to McDonalds but I did support from afar.
CLIP (JAYA SAXANA): Also as a queer person, I did not try the Grimace shake, but I love Grimace as a queer icon the same way that like Gritty is a queer icon. Just anybody that's sort of — is like vaguely menacing, but in a fun way.
Dan Pashman: We get into that and a whole lot more in the Salad Spinner. Check out that now. It's called "Rise Of The Foodie Bro".
Dan Pashman: One of the things that this former inspector said is that the training process basically was like riding shotgun with an experienced inspector for months.
Erika Adams: Mm-hmm. Hmm.
Dan Pashman: And sort of the idea being like we must train you to use the exact same standard that every other inspector uses. So on one hand, that's an impressive level of rigor. On the other hand, when everyone is being trained by an inspector who came before them, you kind of run the risk of every inspector thinking and tasting and approaching food the way someone might have 75 years ago.
Erika Adams: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I mean, I wonder if that kind of plays into — like, it definitely seems like Michelin is holding the line of like, this is what it thinks fine dining is. This is what it thinks a three star restaurant is. It is these omakases, it is these fine French and Italian restaurants.
Dan Pashman: When this year’s stars for New York were announced, one restaurant that was left out was Tatiana, a new place from Chef Kwame Onwuachi. It’s fine dining, pricey, with a menu that celebrates Kwame’s Nigerian roots and his childhood in New York City with dishes like Truffle Chopped Cheese and Oxtail & Crab Rangoon. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells named it the best restaurant in the city in 2023. And yet, it didn’t get a star.
Erika Adams: Yeah, I think when Michelin is perhaps kind of like not reexamining how it rates these restaurants and just kind of passing down the same techniques and information over years and years and years, like, yeah, that creates a very consistent rating system maybe. But it doesn't account for how our dining scene has changed so much here in this country, especially in the past three years.
Dan Pashman: And there’s another reason why Erika has concerns about Michelin’s system.
Dan Pashman: In 2019, the newsletter Family Meal reported that some cities and regions actually pay Michelin to come review their restaurants. According to The New York Times, this dates back to 2010, when Michelin hired the consulting firm Accenture. Michelin’s profits were way down because people weren’t buying their paper guides anymore, so Accenture recommended a few measures Michelin could take to spread brand awareness and boost revenue.
Dan Pashman: One of them was to add a new category. There was already the stars, and the Bib Gourmand category for cheaper restaurants, but now there would be “Recommended” restaurants, sort of an honorable mention below one star. More notable, Accenture suggested a new revenue stream: Ask tourism boards to pay for Michelin coverage in their areas.
Dan Pashman: Now, the tourism boards would just be paying to have Michelin send inspectors and rate the restaurants in that place. From there it would be up to the inspectors to decide who gets stars. And it could be a city tourism board, or a state tourism board, or a region — that would be a case by case decision.
Dan Pashman: Anyway, Since this new system was implemented, it’s been widely reported that some tourism boards have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Guide to evaluate restaurants in their regions.
Erika Adams: I don't think there's like anything perhaps inherently bad about this. Again, we have to remember, like Michelin is a publicly traded French Tire company. Like they're in the business of making money.
Dan Pashman: The issue that Erika does have with this system? The average diner doesn’t know about it. So they think that Boston’s restaurants don’t have any Michelin stars because they’re no good, not because Boston hasn’t shelled out the money to bring Michelin to town, which is the actual reason.
Dan Pashman: For a story she wrote earlier this year, Erika went to Boston’s tourism board, which is called Meet Boston. She asked them if they had discussed paying Michelin to come to town.
Erika Adams: And then during that conversation with Meet Boston, I found out that Michelin had approached them and they had had initial conversations. And MeetBoston said, "No, we're not interested in paying for it," because in Meet Boston’s eyes, it's like, okay, what if we pay, you know, $500,000, $1 million for Michelin to come in and then they grade — you know, five restaurants get one star. It's like one small sliver of Boston's restaurant scene.
Dan Pashman: So, the concern was we're going to spend all this money to recognize a very tiny sliver of our restaurants.
Erika Adams: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And is that really the best use of our money?
Erika Adams: Yes. Yes, yes.
Dan Pashman: Now, Michelin also claims that it's not just about the money. They say that yes, the tourism board has to pay, but they won't take money from just any city or town.
Erika Adams: Oh, I was so annoyed by it.
Erika Adams: Because they said New England. And what was the actual quote?
Dan Pashman: Right. So Gwendal Poullenec, who is the director of the guides, said in an interview, "The company's inspectors also have to assess the maturity of the culinary scene and look for the vibrancy and dynamic potential." This was cited as a reason why places like Florida and Colorado and Atlanta have guides, while New Orleans and all of New England do not ... You know, first of all, New Orleans, how does New Orleans not have vibrancy and dynamic potential? I don't get that. But what do you make of that, Erika, this idea that that part of why New England hasn't been rated is because it lacks vibrancy, dynamic potential?
Erika Adams: [LAUGHS] I remember when I first read that and I had to, like, sit back and do some deep breathing with that.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Erika Adams: Because Meet Boston had said that Michelin did come to them and try to open conversations about having the guide in Boston. I don't know exactly what those conversations were and how far along the line they got, but clearly there was some initial interest there.
Dan Pashman: We asked Michelin if there has ever been a city or region that’s approached them to do a guide and said they would pay for it, but Michelin turned them down because they didn’t think the city's restaurants were up to par. As I said, Michelin didn’t respond to our questions.
Dan Pashman: Anyway, Boston’s tourism board turned Michelin down. But not everyone in the city agreed with that decision. After Erika published her story revealing what had happened, a group of local chefs banded together and confronted Meet Boston. The chefs said …
Erika Adams: Michelin actually would be a huge boon for business for us, you know, no matter where on the list we land. Or if we do, just having Michelin in this city would do a lot for raising awareness of the restaurant industry here, attracting talent. People would want to work here more within restaurants here and then attracting tourism, too. Yeah, and people who are coming into our city for all of our other very well known industries, whether it's sports or academics or science, they're looking at Michelin to, you know, kind of decide where to eat.
Dan Pashman: And Erika says there’s anecdotal evidence that no matter how many stars a region gets, just having a Michelin presence there gives the whole dining scene more cachet.
Erika Adams: Eater did a story earlier this year where they looked at Vancouver's restaurant scene, which they got a Michelin guide for the first time last year. And so this reporter was checking in on the dining scene six months after getting the guide. And the overall sentiment seemed to be at the end of the day, yeah, the dining scene overall was elevated from having Michelin come in. This is a rising tide lifts all boats situation.
Dan Pashman: So, Erika, if I put you in charge of Meet Boston, the Boston tourism agency, Michelin came to you and made a pitch, said, give us this amount of money. I mean, based on what we know other cities have paid, we can assume it's at least in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. You said no. But now all these chefs came to you and said, we really think you should reconsider. But look, you know, you only have so much money in the budget, Erika. There's other priorities. You know, the USS Constitution needs to be fixed up. Quincy Market might be falling apart. The duck boats need repairs.
Erika Adams: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Everybody wants something from you, Erika.
Dan Pashman: So of this limited budget, are you going to spend that money to have Boston get rated by Michelin?
Erika Adams: Here's what I would do. Maybe this is a workaround to the answer. I don't know. I would go to Cambridge and Somerville and Brooklyn and Quincy, which are other cities right around Boston. And I would band together with them. And yes, I would pay for the guide to come in. Because, to me, it's worth it from the attention and awareness that it would bring overall to Boston's restaurant scene. And I think Boston has never been a place where you think of its restaurants first. And it is another way to, yeah, to bring attention to Boston's restaurant scene. And I think it's worth it. And I think restaurants are a cultural touchstone. The city would benefit from yet another outlet examining its restaurant scene and kind of bringing more attention to it.
Dan Pashman: I mean, in some ways, I'm a little surprised by how little some of the cities have to pay. Some of them were just a few hundred thousand dollars, even if it's $1 million.
Erika Adams: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I mean, like, for a big city — big cities have budgets in the billions of dollars. So to pay $1 million to do something that's going to grow tourism and restaurant scene in your city for years to come doesn't seem that crazy to me.
Erika Adams: I know. I know. Me neither. That’s why if I were Meet Boston, I would pay for it.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Dan Pashman: All right, Erika for President of Meet Boston. [LAUGHS]
Erika Adams: I do not want that job.
Dan Pashman: Despite all of Erika’s frustrations with Michelin, she still puts a lot of stock in the guide.
Erika Adams: When I lived in New York I really liked dining out at 1 Michelin star restaurants because sometimes you got a tasting menu, sometimes not. And it was just at the intersection of chefs doing really interesting things and also having a certain skill level. I’m trying to think of a time I walked out of a restaurant being like "Ugh, damn it", but I didn’t. [LAUGHS] I didn’t.
Dan Pashman: So far, Erika hasn’t seen or heard of any evidence that Michelin taking money from regions affects which individual restaurants get stars. While these tourism boards do have an interest in getting as many stars as possible in their areas, there’s no indication that that has translated into an attempt to influence Michelin’s ratings. Michelin did not respond to our questions about this issue.
Dan Pashman: Of course, even if Meet Boston does change its mind and pay for the guide, it may not make everyone happy. The city of Denver paid, but when their stars were announced, one of the top restaurants in the metro area, a place called Annette, was left out. Not because it wasn’t deemed good enough, but because it’s 500 feet past the Denver city limits, in Aurora, Colorado, and Aurora’s tourism bureau declined to pay for the guide.
Dan Pashman: So it seems the places that have Michelin stars really deserve them. But there are some great spots that get left off the list, especially if their food isn’t European or if they're not in a major city. And if a city doesn’t have a Michelin Guide at all, it doesn’t mean they don’t have good food. It may just mean they haven’t put Erika in charge of the tourism board.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, it’s our annual New Year's Food Resolutions episode. I’ll do a debrief on how it went with my New Year’s food resolution for this past year, which was to eat more black pepper. Plus I’ll share listeners’ food resolutions for 2024, and I’ll reveal my own. We’ll also replay one of team Sporkful's favorite episodes from this past year.
Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that one, check out last week’s Salad Spinner, year in review edition. I talk with Vibe Check host Zach Stafford and Eater correspondent Jaya Saxena about the biggest and weirdest food stories of this year. Plus, I get to hear their biggest food complaints and I have a few complaints of my own. That’s up now.