What is a Michelin Star, and Who Serves the Best Meal Anyway?

Before we delve into the question of what is a Michelin star, lets start closer to home. Imagine two women who both share a love of phở. To one, a young woman living in San Francisco, the aromas of phở remind her of growing up in Hanoi, of family and warmth and love. Once a month she spends hours on the phone as her mum talks her through the exact steps to prepare the perfect broth, even though by now she knows the recipe by heart. The other woman has lived in America all her life, but when she was 19 she got on a plane to Vietnam and walked through markets and darted through motorbikes and now those same aromas remind her of adventure, and excitement, and her first meal alone in a foreign country. Now, she occasionally takes her own young daughter out to Vietnamese restaurants and eats with chopsticks she once struggled to understand, and her daughter tells her that she’s going to go to Vietnam too one day.

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If you asked the first woman about the best meal she ever had, she would talk about family and laughter and bickering and love in a home that was skinny and tall and always had something on the stove. If you asked the second woman, she would talk about a fearless, independent girl she’s proud she had a chance to be, and the one that she’s now raising.

This is how most of us think of the best meals we ever had. These meals aren’t just about what’s on the plate; they’re settings for the narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. They don’t just taste like their ingredients, they taste like the memory of the people we love and how we felt at a time in our lives.

Despite being “simple”, a Michelin star is one of the highest honors a chef can earn for their restaurant, and earning even one Michelin star is an achievement that many chefs will strive for their entire careers.

The Michelin Guide

How is it possible, then, to judge food objectively? To sit down to a meal at a glamorous restaurant in Switzerland, or a Sushi restaurant in a Tokyo train station, and only take into account the flavors of the dish in front of you? How is it possible to say “yes, this is the best meal I’ve ever had,” or even “this is the best Sushi I’ve ever had” and remove that judgement from your own upbringing, expectations, and experiences?

This is exactly the job of the inspectors who work for the Michelin Guide.

While the Michelin Guide started in 1900 as a way for the French tire company of the same name to encourage people to buy a car (and therefore tires), today it is the world’s foremost authority on fine dining.

Each year, Michelin Guides award up to three stars to a select few restaurants in 24 countries across the world. While Michelin is famously secretive about the exact criteria used to judge a meal, International Director Michael Ellis says the guide “is focused only on the quality of the food”. One Michelin inspector (whose identity was kept secret) told The Telegraph “It’s about the food – the cooking, flavour, texture, technique. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just good and good value for money, in clean surroundings. That’s it – very simple.”

Despite being “simple”, a Michelin star is one of the highest honors a chef can earn for their restaurant, and earning even one Michelin star is an achievement that many chefs will strive for their entire careers.

What is a Michelin star? A guide to what the ratings mean.
The Original Michelin Guide from 1900

At Global Image Creation, we work with some of the most incredible hotels and restaurants around the world, and we count two Michelin-starred restaurants among our clients. 7132 Silver, part of 7132 Hotel in Vals, Switzerland, headed by two Michelin star Chef Sven Wassmer; and Restaurant Pavillion at the Baur au Lac in Zurich, headed by Michelin star Chef Laurent Eperon.

Michelin Star Food Photographer

Through our work as a culinary photographer we’ve had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see these incredible chefs at work. We can’t tell you how successful the Michelin inspectors are at removing their own emotions and their own experiences from the process of judging a meal. But, we can tell you that the Michelin starred chefs that we have worked with produce food that is far from unemotional. These chefs put all of their passion, and their emotion, into the meals they create. Their food is not removed from their experience, it is an expression of their experience.

Of course, the meals at a Michelin star restaurant are objectively better than any of the meals most people will have a chance to eat. They are created by chefs who have a deep professional understanding of flavor, texture, and technique. However, one thing that the best meals in the world all have in common – whether they’re served at a Michelin star restaurant or from your mum’s kitchen – are the passion and emotions and experiences that are connected to those meals. The best meals in the world incorporate far more than what’s on the plate.

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