Stephen Jardine: Michelin keeps its bite in taste stakes

WANTED: new head of IT for the Michelin Guides. I’m not sure if the position is actually vacant, but it probably should be after the Michelin website managed to leak details of this year’s award winners a week before publication was due.

It’s the third time in four years that details have leaked out in advance of the guide being officially published. I suppose we should just be happy that Michelin isn’t entrusted with the French nuclear launch codes.

The leak forced Michelin to publish the list ahead of schedule, delivering a return to the Michelin fold for Tom Aikens and a fifth star for Heston Blumenthal’s growing empire. In Scotland, it’s no change and no surprises, except the still bizarre omission of the Three Chimneys on Skye.

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So, if an organisation can’t event co-ordinate a book launch and a website, can it really still exert an iron grip over the world of food and chefs? Against all the odds, the answer is yes.

In recent years, restaurant guides have proliferated. Harden’s, Zagat and The Good Food Guide all claim to be arbiters of taste, while TripAdvisor has wrestled control from the critics back to the public. Despite that and the spread of social media, in kitchens across the land, Michelin still rules supreme and remains the authoritative voice when it comes to food

First published in 1900, the red version now appears in a dozen countries and sets the standard for food worldwide. It judges by criteria that haven’t changed in a hundred years – quality of food, service, décor and consistency. Free wi-fi is never going to be a deciding factor. Instead, Michelin judges great food on a basis that never varies.

For chefs, a coveted star can transform a business. When the awards are officially announced, the phone starts ringing for the lucky few and doesn’t stop for days.

Inspectors are seen as the best in the business, eating in around 250 restaurants a year and making several return visits to star establishments to ensure they get it right.

Of course, it’s not without faults. Critics say Michelin is still too white, middle class and swayed by the French influence on food. In an age of mass communication, the obsession with secrecy is also frustrating but, given what is at stake, anonymity will always be crucial. It’s also what helps make Michelin special.

If getting a star is an achievement, keeping it is the real challenge. Once the euphoria wears off, there is the prospect of the hard slog required every day to maintain standards. And at any moment the inspector could walk back through the door.

Then it’s a 365-day wait to find out if they have retained the accolade. Or slightly less, if the Michelin web team has anything to do with it.