The Michelin Guide is widely acknowledged as the bible of hotel and restaurant ratings worldwide. Gaining a Michelin star doesn’t just add a feather to your cap, it also undeniably comes with an expectation to of your services and an increased footfall to your certifiably winning establishment. Thus, the detriment of losing a star will also reflect in a significant loss to a restaurant’s reputation that can be felt as swiftly as within 24 hours. It’s no wonder that the honor of bearing Michelin stars can sometimes turn into a grave burden leading to the fortunately rare and unfortunate sad suicides of some chefs.
We sat down with Chris Watson, an ex-Michelin Guide inspector who covered the UK, Europe and Scandinavian regions during his tenure. Here he shares an in-depth overview of his years at Michelin, what does it take to gain an extra star and why he decided to leave after 5 years of the good life spent staying at world class hotels and dining on Michelin starred meals. He now resides in Bangkok with his wife and continues to write food reviews for the media across Thailand.
- There is no such thing as a Michelin starred chef. The stars are awarded to the restaurant and the chef for that particular season edition.
- The stars do not belong to an establishment forever.
- If you move premises to a larger different space, you have to start earning your stars all over again.
- The identity of Michelin inspectors is not as discreet as what the media portrays it to be i.e. no one knows but themselves. The families and friends of Michelin inspectors in general do know they are working as inspectors.
Chris’ Definitions of a 1, 2- or 3-star Michelin restaurant
- 1 star – It is a great memorable experience
- 2 stars – There is more complexity and depth. There is a huge contrast in terms of techniques for a 1 star and a 2-star establishment.
- 3 stars – Consistency is key. It should have similar finesse, a little more complexity, impeccable service from the time you walk-in to the time you leave. Overall, it is an experience to remember.
There is less of a gap between 2 stars and 3 stars food-wise, than between one and two stars. I’ve observed that if a restaurant has maintained its two stars for many years, say 10 years, it will generally remain a two-star restaurant. A restaurant, if worthy of three stars, will typically obtain its third star within 3 to 4 years.
Getting in and becoming a Michelin Inspector
How did you get the job?
In the 90s, the guidebook was mostly European based. I applied to Michelin after I graduated, just because it looked like a dream job. They were advertising openly in hiring inspectors all across the globe. I was turned down the first time I applied. There were thousands and upon thousands of applicants with ages ranging from their 20s to 60s, and what they were very strict with was what they were looking for. Speaking the French language is was a prerequisite.
In less than a year, a letter from the Michelin Guide arrived at my home in the UK. I had just started a new job contract pursuing a career in the hotel industry in the Middle East. I was due to fly back for vacation anyway. So, I went back and went through rigorous screening processes. Michelin seeks quite a lot of culinary knowledge. This became an obvious requisite when you talk to the top guys. In those days it was Marco, Gordon and Heston in the UK, and you needed to have a certain level of credibility.
There were only 6 inspectors in the UK at that time. I spent almost 5 years with Michelin.
How was your first year like?
In your first 9-12 months, you accompany other inspectors on their visits. You say nothing to the third party (restaurants) but learn and observe. You go for training before you are allowed to let loose on your own.
Every inspector, upon having the same dining experience, should be able to rate consistently and measure dishes against the same rating scale. It is important we all think the same. It might sound robotic but this is a guide that is made for primarily the upper echelon looking for consistency.
You must eat everything – every cuisine, every part of the animal. Each year, you are allocated 2 to 3 parts of the UK – from Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales; and you are given four to five regions to complete within the allotted time. Michelin will try to rotate your regions every year. Every third week, you are expected to head back to the office to do your paperwork, reporting and make logistical arrangements for the following week.
Now, starred restaurants only consist of 20% of our work. You have to remember, our job is also to review hotels, new restaurants, and Bib Gourmands (the notable non-starred restaurants that are simpler and value for money). For starred restaurants, you have to go in pairs. You never go on your own.
Sometimes, we encounter amusing occasions when another inspector will come to a restaurant without realising that it was in your area or vice versa. The borders of the different districts are not 100% accurate. So, you walk into a restaurant one night, look across the room and give the other inspector a look that says, “What are you doing here? This is my district.” It can be quite fun.
I think people have the perception that being a Michelin inspector is a super job. It is a job, at the end of the day. When you are eating out every day, 80% of the job is evaluating just ordinary restaurants; most have no accolades and they think they might get one, but they won’t. Now, the 20% is where the fun stuff happens, the stuff which you will never complain about – where you get to experience world class hotels and Michelin starred restaurants, for free, and more often than the everyday diner!
Chris Watson, ex-Michelin Inspector
Which restaurant had the honour to receive your very first star?
During the interview process, your final hurdle (after 5 rounds of screenings) is to go for lunch or dinner with the Editor at a two or three-star restaurant. This is before officially joining the Guide.
Our lunch was at the two stars La Tante Claire in London by Pierre Koffmann. I remember every dish that we had. We ordered wine and the Editor asked, “Does the restaurant deserve another star?” Huge pressure but a lot of fun. That would be my first star and La Tante Claire’s third star. I am proud to have contributed in some small way to this additional accolade.
Michelin is a very family-focused organisation. The Editor at that time was Derek Brown. Derek was both revered and feared by many chefs.
There are two types of visits:
- Announced – This is for the purpose of information updates, particularly the high calibre ones that are rated one or two stars
- Unannounced – as a normal paying customer
In reference to No. 1, does this mean you cannot visit the restaurant anymore?
Yes, you can, and hope they will not recognize you. If it is the high calibre restaurants, there will be two of us present. One will go back to the car (to be unseen) and whilst the other stays back to gather information.
How much can they change? They can have 20 chefs that night with everyone taking extra care with the dishes. That is how mistakes get made. Now, when they don’t know who you are, that’s when a Michelin star will most probably awarded.
Chris Watson, ex-Michelin Inspector
Working as an Inspector
In an article, it said that the Michelin stars are solely rated by the food. Is that true?
This is where I disagree. I think the media hammered in focused on the fact that it is only the food on the plate. I personally think that the service has to match the accolade you are given. If you have poor service but great food, I would not have given a star in my days nor would have the other inspectors.
How do you award Michelin stars to restaurants?
At the end of the day, any organisation has to abide by a financial budget. We have to visit every starred restaurant at least once a year. In all honesty, if it is a safe star i.e. solid track record, consistent, keeps the status quo and is not a contender for 2 stars, you go there on your own.
Now, let’s say the chef has changed and, in your opinion, it no longer qualifies as a starred restaurant or, conversely, they should be given another star, then another inspector has to go there to verify. In some cases, there might be up to half a dozen visits.
What is your thought process when you enter a restaurant?
- First, is the welcome. Assess the welcome. It is not all about the creme de la creme of the interior when you step in, but the attentiveness of the staff. My favourite restaurant is the three starred The Waterside Inn, Bray, UK. I go there every time we are back in the UK. The service is polished and faultless – from the moment you arrive to your leaving. It is a different process for every restaurant, but fundamentally it should be a warm and professional welcome.
- Observe the different sections of the restaurant – bar, lounge, pre-dinner drinks, menus, specials of the evening, complexity of the wine list and how the menu is explained.
- Evaluate the ambiance – the tables, lighting, cloth cover, bare tables. The criteria has changed over the years and nowadays, you do not need linens or highly prized cutlery.
What is your monthly routine like?
On Week 1, 2 and 4, Mondays to Fridays comprise of three meals a day and, on a number of occasions (not many), two dinners. Imagine this, you are reaching the end of the week, nearing closure date for that area when one of the owners you’re visiting asks if you’ve visited this new place that opened up a few months ago that is owned by this chef who worked at this other notable place. You feel a level of dedication to the job to go – you’re connected to what you are doing. Of course, if it was an 18-course degustation, it will be just one session for the night.
For your 3rd week in the month, you head back to HQ in London. Monday morning, everyone exchanges notes of what we did in the past two weeks and what’s next for the remaining weeks of the month.
By lunchtime, everyone’s out to eat somewhere to meet the target. Later that week, you book hotels and restaurants and run errands like getting the car serviced. You are also being assigned to an area while in London on the 3rd week. On Friday, you do a few starred restaurants with your colleagues, and off you go again till you see each other the next month.
It is a solitary job. You’re on your own, except for those infrequent occasions when you have a starred restaurant to go to and another inspector will join you for the meal.
Chris Watson, ex-Michelin Inspector
How do you remember what you ate?
You remember. One of the hardest things about this job is the paperwork. It does not matter whether you are typing or writing. In those days, no photos or note-taking was practiced during meals. Sometimes, the chef will want to have a chat – that is the most important part. Marco, Gordon, Heston, they all became good friends of mine. Marco latterly requested to return the stars, but you are not allowed to do that.
You get back to your car, drive back to the hotel, it is 11.30pm and you have to write up the basics at least. With so many meals, you can’t possibly recall the details the next morning so, you do it that night itself. After three glasses of wine over a numerous course meal, it gets much harder but you do it anyway.
When you took the job, did your family know?
I did read somewhere that one of the inspectors hadn’t told his family. I think that is a little bit over the top. My family knew what I was doing but we did not discuss openly about where I dined and certainly never with friends. Discretion is critical.
How does Michelin fund itself?
Logically, sales of the Guide do not truly pay all the bills. It is the tyres. The original story of the Guide was set up to provide people with information on where to go for petrol and not food. It eventually evolved to include food, and then the stars came in.
What are your thoughts on the Singapore hawker food store that was awarded a Michelin star?
I think the guide is now trying to appeal to everyone and recognising that food is perhaps not what you or I would traditionally say is a Michelin star.
During my time in the UK, they gave one star and more recently two stars to a pub called The Hand and Flowers that serves highly refined English pub food. They are still the only pub in the UK with two stars. Another good example is Jay Fai, the queen of street food here in Bangkok. I think picking the best of the bunch has its own good intentions.
Having said that, I think what is exciting is that Michelin being in Thailand for three years with local inspectors across Asia is recognition of a change in trend – one that no longer needs to be set in a formal French dining room, with chandeliers and the likes.
So, it was a good life for 5 years. Why did you decide to leave?
It is not a career, this solitary lifestyle. Every month, you are on the road for 3 weeks, and only at home 5 nights plus weekends.
You can’t have a family life. I thought about it. Is this really what I want? It is still a job, in the end, and it eventually takes the pleasure out of dining out. There is also a limit to how much food a body can take too. It took me a year to get back the excitement at the thought of, “Where shall we go for dinner tonight?”
Of course, the longer you work in Michelin, you gain more experience and you rise in seniority. The ultimate step-up is being the Editor but I can’t couldn’t see myself as an editor even though I have had covered most of the capitals in Europe – UK, Ireland, Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Paris and so on.
I wanted more time at home and career growth. If you can do this part-time, fantastic! But you can’t. It is a full-time job.
Once a year, there will be a star meeting just before the guide is due to print. They call it the “Meeting of the Stars”. Some French inspectors will come over to London too. You are allocated a couple of key decisions within the week. Some inspectors might have to drive from London to the north of Scotland to have just one meal and by Friday, reporting has to be completed. These reports are critical to decide whether a restaurant gets a star, gets a star removed, and so on. That’s where the meaty decisions are made.
Sometimes, the opinions are so diverse, and we cannot get consensus, two other inspectors will visit the restaurant one more time and they will make the final decision. If the guide is going to remove a star, an inspector will visit the restaurant before the guide is printed to notify them. It can be hard to manage but ultimately, that’s it.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Interview and words by Theresa Burhan. Edited by Lim Ai Leen.