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What Even is a Michelin Star and How Do you Get One?

Words: Shamim de Brún

This week, Ireland’s elite chefs have stars in their eyes with the annual Michelin Hotel and Restaurant Guide publication. But, in Irish terms, the biggest story to emerge from this year’s editions is how many stars were given out. As a result, we are now a star-studded nation.

All of the twenty open restaurants in Ireland which had stars in the 2021 Guide held onto them. Moreover, two new additions to Dublin’s star-studded lineup were announced; Bastible and Glovers Alley. As a result, Ireland now has four restaurants with two-star status – Aimsir in Co Kildare and Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin, along with yesterday’s addition of Chapter One by Mickael Viljanen and Liath.

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This is a massive achievement for a country. Let alone one not traditionally associated with high-end food. ​​The Dublin dining experience is now as good as any destination location. The rebirth of Irish gastronomy kicked off during the Celtic Tiger years, managed to survive the great recession and went on to become the thriving scene we now find ourselves surrounded in. But why are Michelin Stars so essential, and what does it mean to get one?

What is the Michelin Guide?

People love a guide. From Spirit Guides to Dublin’s Ultimate Food Guide, there is a guide for every part of life. The lads behind Michelin Tires knew this. Their creation of the Michelin Star surreptitiously coincided with the invention of the automobile. The things tires go on. Michelin wanted to create demand for automobiles and the tires they manufactured. Unfortunately, there were only a few hundred cars in all of France. So they gave away the Guide for free to create demand for vehicles. 

The Michelin Guide expanded rapidly and became available throughout Europe and Northern Africa within ten years. The Michelin Guide rating system that still guides selections today was introduced in France in 1926 as a single star. The Guide introduced the second and third stars in 1933. 

Michelin Tires

The Judgement

For decades, guide inspectors have been visiting establishments anonymously to assess their suitability for an award. As a result, Michelin judges are shrouded in mystery. Michelin keeps much of its approach under wraps but does outline five main criteria for inclusion in the Guide – the quality of the products; mastery of flavour and cooking techniques; the chef’s personality in his cuisine; value for money; and consistency between visits. The inspectors also pay for their meals in order to – as the Guide says – “maintain the independence of their opinion”.

The absence of transparent, formal criteria for awarding stars and the anonymous, often monthly, restaurant visits by highly trained Michelin inspectors have meant the organisation is sometimes viewed as the culinary equivalent of a secret service. The only consistency seems to be that eateries that focus on the food rather than the surroundings tend to collect stars like Mario. 

Mr Patrick Guilbaud said in an interview with the Irish Times in 2000, “It is not mysterious, or it is only mysterious for people who don’t get the star and feel hard done by. It is difficult to get stars and difficult to keep them.”

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No such thing as a Michelin-starred chef

There is no such thing as a Michelin-starred chef. But PR will constantly promote new restaurants with the tantalising promise of a ‘Michelin-starred chef’ at the helm. The fact of the matter is that they don’t exist: stars are awarded to the restaurant, not the chef. So Gordon Ramsey holds no Michelin stars. Restaurant Gordon Ramsey has three.

The reasoning is pretty apparent: different chefs cook at the same restaurant. But it is the dream of many chefs. The truth is when a restaurant gets any number of stars. It’s the head chef who gets the plaudits, the acclaim, and the sense that they earned it.

The Difference Between the Star and the Bib

A star rating virtually guarantees an incredible restaurant experience no matter where you are in the world. The Guide translates its awards as three stars equal “exceptional cuisine; worth a special journey”. Two stars stand for “excellent cooking” while one star is the perhaps slightly less superlative “very good restaurant in its category”.

Since 1997, they have also awarded “bib gourmands” for eateries that offer “good quality, good value cooking”. Restaurant inspectors do not look at interior decor, table setting or service quality in awarding the Bib Gourmand – these are indicated by the number of ‘covers’ it receives, represented by the fork and spoon symbol. According to Michelin, any restaurant can be recommended by its guide “as long as its food is of high quality”.

The Stars and Artistry

There is a correlation between the artistry in the food and the receiving of a star. Whether it’s that the star-studders seek out the artistry or the striving for the star gives chefs the goal the need to create is entirely unprovable. But you can see the art when you check the insta. 

If you look at pictures of Michelin Star restaurants, they will all illicit a “how did they do that” from even the most seasoned home cook. 

Glovers Alley Instagram

Andy McFadden, the chef at the helm of Glovers Alley said he strives to be perfectly imperfect with his food. There is no perfection in the world, but there is art. The art in food is phenomenally complex and hard to put your finger on—salt, fat, heat, acid, colour, texture. Every dish is a balancing act. It’s like all art; not as simple as it looks. But unlike a great movie or a Jackson Pollock, this art is destroyed, not just consumed. And then it is gone. 

The Michelin Guide is annual, which means even chefs that have received coveted stars could lose them any year. Their transience mimics the transience of the food itself and keeps us engaged, entertained and following. 

To get a star is to be recognised for your artistry. There is no higher honour in food. This is perhaps what keeps people referring to guide as the Oscars of food.

Bastible Instagram

What it Means to Chefs

It’s hard to put into words what it is like to win your first star. It’s like getting approval from an absent father figure, or more likely, it’s like being recognised by your peers on a global scale. So chef Andy was elated, astounded and astonished over his win with newly starred Glovers Alley yesterday. 

Andy isn’t sure what it was about this year that pushed him over the edge and levelled him up from Bib Gourmand to One star. But he said that customers could feel it. In an interview with Char, he said, “people have been texting me saying finally, not that the four years was that long… but it’s like people could tell there was something different, that they could taste how stressed I’d been in the first few years in the food”. He said he had become more confident in his cooking recently. It seems that his “focusing on the food” in the wake of the pandemic has really paid off. 

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The joy and sheer bewilderment in Andy’s voice was a joy to behold, and you could tell the win was a gobsmackingly good way to kick off his Wednesday. 

Barry Fitzgerald, former head chef at Etto and the Michelin starred Harwood Arms in London, got his first star for Bastible in Dublin 8 yesterday. He, too, was overjoyed and, while not shocked, seemed surprised that it came when it did. He said in an interview that while the Star “isn’t the be-all and end-all that any chef that tells you he wants nothing to do with it is lying”. It would be hard to conceive anyone actively not wanting recognition from their peers. Not wanting the boost in business that comes from the win. But you can see why someone may not like the stress. 

People will always be unshakeably enamoured with the idea of the ‘Michelin Starred Chef’ in the way they are about Oscar winners. It is artistic recognition, prestige and a guarantee of quality all in one. The awards are based on merit and bring with them the respect of the culinary world at large. Check out one of Ireland’s twenty-three starred restaurants or hundred and fifty-odd bib gourmands and see for yourself.

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