I just watched a BBC-produced documentary on IFC about how the Michelin star system affects restaurants and chefs. It concentrated mostly on the situation in England, but the effect is worldwide.
The Guide spread to other countries. Eventually they started charging for it. But the big moment came in 1926 when they started awarding restaurants stars. In 1931, the system of one, two or three stars (or none) was created. In 1936, the Guide explained what they stood for:
One star is a very good restaurant.
Two stars is an excellent restaurant, worth a detour.
Three stars is an exceptional restaurant, worth a special journey.
Today, the Guide, which comes out annually, is all about the restaurant ratings. Michelin employs anonymous inspectors around the world. They visit restaurants more than once, trying to get a sense of the menu, to make their appraisals. Just getting to the one-star level takes some doing, and most restaurants can't manage it. To get to the three-star level requires something approaching perfection--according to the inspectors. There are less than 100 three-star restaurants in the world. I don't think Los Angeles has any.
But there are some who feel the system makes no sense. First, there is, or at least has been, a general bias toward French cooking in the Guide, which is only one cuisine among many, after all. Second, when it began it was about the cooking, but has it now become about the money?--an extra star has people flocking to a restaurant and allows the chef to charge more for the same dishes. Third, who are these inspectors, and how do they know more about food than the chefs?
Then there's the tremendous pressure it puts on the chefs. Competition can be a good thing, but if it's all you work for, it can become a mania. The classic example is French chef Bernard Loiseau. It took him almost twenty years to raise his restaurant to the three-star level, and he maintained that rating for over a decade. Then he heard rumors he would lose a star, and committed suicide in 2003. The story was front-page news in France, and shocked the world of haute cuisine. (It's not quite that simple, of course--he suffered from depression, didn't like new trends in cooking which meant the foodies were abandoning him, and so on.) His wife still runs the restaurant, and it still has a three-star rating. Did Michelin feel the pressure?
Mind you, I can understand how some people are into it. I've been accused of being a snob, myself--for instance, when I read fiction it's usually classic novels, not modern trash. And while I've got nothing against super hero moves, I often prefer art house fare (as some claim my year-end wrap-ups prove). As long as you come by it honestly--and you've got the money to support your habit--fine, read the Michelin Guide and seek out those fancy places. But judge for yourself. I would hope an extra star doesn't convince you something tastes better than it does.
*If you're wondering about the title of this post, in the documentary, one of the chefs says we may call it a star rating, but in the Guide they look like macaroons, which is what many in France call them. I don't know--they look like asterisks to me.