For the last three years, however, something has happened each year to cause the Red Guide itself to appear to be losing its grip. So far, the thick skin of Michelin is doing an impressive job of protecting the brand.
The first two years of the Red Guide's troubles began through no direct fault of its own. On February 24, 2003, amid rumors that he might be losing his Michelin three-star rating (a loss that often leads to a quick demotion to culinary has-been status), famous French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide.
Some of the biggest French chefs immediately pinned the blame on a too-influential Michelin. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and it was decided that Loiseau had his fingers in many pies, some of which were turning sour prior to the Michelin rumors.
The troubles continued last year when a Red Guide inspectors, Pascal Rémy, published a tell-all book, L'Inspecteur se met à Table (The Inspector Sits at the Table or The Inspector Spills the Beans), alleging that Michelin plays favorites with chefs, doesn't visit reviewed restaurants as much as it lets on, and is generally less on the up and up with its readers than might be thought.
Michelin promptly denied what its inspector had to say, going as far as to take out newspaper ads pleading innocence. After 16 years of service and one tell-all book, Rémy was promptly canned; he lost the court case, where he pleaded unfair dismissal (remember, we are in France).
This year's Red Guide troubles, however, seem to prove some of the inspector's allegations correct, and this time, the wounds are self-inflicted.
Just before the Red Guide's 2005 home opener in France on 2 March, Michelin got caught trying to pull a fast one in Belgium. It very favorably "reviewed" L'Ostend Queen restaurant for the Benelux guide, which came out 26 January. Trouble was, the restaurant hadn't yet opened for business. The Brussels daily, Le Soir, promptly caught Michelin with its bib down.
While the press had a field day with the gaffe, Michelin went to work in the days that followed, pulling what remained of the 50,000 copies that had been distributed in stores, turning them to pulp and ordering a new printing of the Benelux guide, sans L'Ostend Queen.
What kind of taste has three years of trouble left in the mouths of readers? Apparently, it's the flavor of bulletproof rubber from Michelin's monolithic mascot, Bibendum.
A Michelin rating is "still a badge of honor for a chef," says Paris-based Patricia Wells, a well-known food writer, cookbook author and English-language readers' most direct link to French food. "They really take it seriously and that's why I do."
Turns out, that like a classic downtown steakhouse that hasn't changed its menu in 20 years, people continue to turn to Michelin because it's a consistently safe bet.
"They're an enormous machine, and they're bound to make mistakes once in a while," says French food journalist Agnès Lascève. "It's not ideal, it's a little boring, but Michelin is the only guide that remains a reference."
Isn't there any competition?
"That's part of the reason why they remain the reference," explains Lascève.
The only other guide that comes close to the scope of Michelin in France is the GaultMillau guide, which looks like a yellow and green version of the Red Guide. Thrust into the spotlight in the late seventies on the success of the nouvelle cuisine movement whose tiny, artsy portions could leave a diner hungry at the end of a meal, GaultMillau evolved into a guide that takes more chances, for instance by rating a restaurant that might disappear before a diner arrives. Michelin plays it much closer to the vest, often waiting a few years to make certain that a restaurant is a sure thing before spending any ink on it.
"We're not going to wait four or five years to make sure they're not going to disappear," confirms GaultMillau executive manager, Patricia Le Naour. "We're not an institution [like Michelin]," she says. "We don't have to talk about everybody; we make our choice and that's it."
For many in France, however, the Michelin perspective is preferred. Like many of her countrymen, Lascève says, "I'll consult Michelin, not GaultMillau."
So far, readers have stood by the big red book and the proof is in the pudding. Amid all the trouble, Michelin sold 415,000 copies of its Red Guide in its home country last year (with a total sale of about one million for all of its food guides around the world) compared to 70,000 chez GaultMillau.
Though Michelin spokeswoman Fabienne de Brebisson has predictably short answers for the bad press in 2003 and 2004, saying Loiseau's suicide "had nothing to do with us" and Remy's book was "false and phony," the two problems seem to have had a gradual glasnost-esque effect; the Red Guide has opened the book a bit more to allow people to understand its secretive rating system.
Michelin historically relies on a relatively cryptic and confusing set of terse text, multicolored stars, bibs, forks, dogs and other symbols. GaultMillau goes the other direction and even rubs it in: its website offers a page called "How does it work?" that gives the skinny on its longer commentaries and far easier to understand 20-point rating system.
After coming on board in 2001 as the Red Guide's editor in chief, Englishman Derek Brown made a relatively large effort to clear up how things work at Michelin, a task now passed to his successor, Jean-Luc Naret.
"They're working hard to modernize, and they're doing it fairly wisely," says Wells, who seems to welcome the extra commentary the guide has progressively added over the past few years.
Still Brebisson's "false and phony" comments on Remy's book sound a little fishy when compared to what happened in Belgium.
Michelin admits to shortcutting its own rules for L'Ostend Queen due mostly to the restaurant's menu being designed by Pierre Wynants, who already has a three-star Michelin restaurant, Comme Chez Soi, in Brussels.
"It shouldn't have happened," says Brebisson, "There was an error, and error is human, but it's not admissible and we can't tolerate it."
At least, it seems, not anymore, but it is refreshing to see the brand owners take the blame when the fault is definitely theirs.
"I still think they're the most respected guide out there," argues Wells, "There's so much scandal in the world today—this is like popcorn." Hopefully Michelin won't leave it in the popper for too long.