linked in facebook twitter rss

  • Interbrand
  • Brandchannel

your chance!
your chance!
Michelin Red Guide

Micheline Red Guide - cooked

  Michelin Red Guide
by Joe Ray
March 7, 2005

Priests would line up to attain this level of holiness.

Every year at this time, Michelin puts out its Red Guide, the Frenchman's food bible (in heft, volume and reverence), and every year, foodies snatch the guides up like hotcakes. Readers compare annual ratings of their favorite restaurants, or look to see if a chef has been elevated into the hallowed rare air of the three-star ranking. Then they check to see if anyone has lost their grip.


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.


Joe Ray is a Paris-based freelance journalist specializing in food, travel and analysis pieces. He writes for major dailies and magazines around the world. His work can be found on

 commenting closed Add Social Bookmark bookmark  print
 suggest topic  recommend ( 14 )  email

  brandchannel profile archive   2011  |  2010  |  2009  |  2008  |  2007  |  2006  | 2005  |  2004  |  2003  |  2002  |  2001
Dec 19, 2005 Jonathan Adler - furnishing touch -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  Home furnishings design brand Jonathan Adler proves that the pot grows when you stick to what you love best.
Dec 12, 2005 The Pop Shoppe - pops back -- Renée Alexander
  The Pop Shoppe pours on the nostalgia to attract new markets with its retro appeal.
Dec 5, 2005 Express Personnel - clocks in -- Dale Buss
  Express Personnel takes a slow approach to winning over accounts.
Nov 28, 2005 Canadian Tire - auto response -- Renée Alexander
  Canadian Tire wheels out a female-friendly store.
Nov 21, 2005 Starbucks - supreme bean -- John Simmons
  On what grounds does Starbucks succeed in places where American brands are not welcome?
Nov 14, 2005 Preserve Toothbrush - envirodental -- Evelyn Hafferty
  The quest to sell an eight-dollar toothbrush leads to over-design in the category and waste in our landfills. Recycline’s Preserve sinks its teeth into a more sustainable solution.
Nov 7, 2005 REI - working out -- Dale Buss
  Outdoor gear retailer REI climbs hand in hand with its employees.
Oct 31, 2005 Vespa - viva -- Jackson Mahr
  Vespa’s authenticity gives it an unassuming cool that has survived through the decades.
Oct 24, 2005 NHL - face-off -- Evelyn Hafferty
  The NHL shoots, but does it score with its new logo?
Oct 17, 2005 Putumayo - earth tones -- Alycia de Mesa
  Putumayo packages world music for the neophyte.
Oct 10, 2005 Tim Hortons - power play -- Renée Alexander
  Can Canadian fast-food franchise Tim Hortons tempt Americans away from Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s?
Oct 3, 2005 Neau - no water -- Erwin Wijman
  A social campaign in the Netherlands says Neau to bottled waters.
Sep 26, 2005 The Source - rewired -- Renée Alexander
  RadioShack rebrands itself in Canada as The Source and signals its approach up North.
Sep 19, 2005 Dragonair - flights of fancy -- Adeline Chong
  Flying Dragons: Dragonair’s livery design draws from Chinese tradition.
Sep 12, 2005 Make Poverty History - passion statement -- Rob Mitchell
  Non-profit organization Make Poverty History makes history in a very short period of time by getting on the agenda of the G8 summit.
Sep 5, 2005 Clear RX - design on drugs -- Evelyn Hafferty
  Target shows bottle by adopting an innovative approach to pharmaceutical container design.
Aug 29, 2005 Napster - pounces -- Rob Mitchell
  Cat Tails: Napster springs back to life only to encounter an Apple in its place.
Aug 22, 2005 Mountain Crest - brewing feud -- Renée Alexander
  Mountain Crest starts a bar brawl among Canadian brewers.
Aug 15, 2005 CBGB - punks out -- Abram Sauer
  Punk rock venue CBGB’s faces extinction 20 years past its due date.
Aug 8, 2005 Tommy Bahama - dressed to chill -- Alycia de Mesa
  Tommy Bahama hopes to entice you into the good life of sun and surf.
Aug 1, 2005 United Nations - fractured -- Lisa Marchese and Rachel Simmons
  Is the United Nations in crisis? Not surprisingly a recent poll found the UN suffers from negative perceptions, but what to do?
Jul 25, 2005 The Peninsula Hotels - made -- Adeline Chong
  The Peninsula Hotel anchors its brand in its staff.
Jul 18, 2005 Harry Potter - brand wizard -- Stephen Brown
  What's the secret behind the Harry Potter brand?
Jul 11, 2005 Jetsgo - looney -- Renée Alexander
  Three strikes you're out: The founder of failed airlines Jetsgo, Intair and Royal is still trying to take off, but can a brand image recover from bankruptcy?
Jul 4, 2005 America - home free? -- Simon Anholt
  The challenger to America's brand is not America's military foes, but the disaffection of its consumers and the skill and determination of its competitors.
Jun 27, 2005 Dubai - mirage? -- Sunil Varughese
  Enhancing Brand Dubai
Jun 20, 2005 Liberator - well positioned -- Abram Sauer
  Erotic goods manufacturer Liberator straddles the market between an X-treme sport for the XXX crowd and a remedy for bad back sufferers.
Jun 13, 2005 easyGroup - complex -- Jackson Mahr
  EasyGroup: are the strengths of each sub-brand robbed by the diversity of the others?
Jun 6, 2005 Kit Kat - barred -- Slaven Marinovich
  Will the courts rest on Nestlé's attempt to register Kit Kat's "Have a break" strapline?
May 30, 2005 Essence - right time? -- A.K. Cabell
  Essence leads the way in targeting African-American women.
May 23, 2005 MG Rover - sacked -- Chris Grannell
  MG Rover’s breakdown demonstrates the value of intangible assets.
May 16, 2005 Lloyds TSB - high interest? -- Alicia Clegg
  Lloyds TSB set out to raise interest among job seekers in the UK, but how does its recruitment campaign work with the overall brand identity?
May 9, 2005 Sony - played -- Jackson Mahr and Lesley Keene
  Sony’s fall is not isolated to its own actions; however it needs to act immediately to keep its media empire from crumbling.
May 2, 2005 QuikTrip - full service -- Alycia de Mesa
  QuikTrip strives to show that quick doesn’t need to mean nasty.
Apr 25, 2005 Hummer H3 - civilized -- Alycia de Mesa
  The General Motors sets out to rule the road with the Hummer H3.
Apr 18, 2005 Microsoft - no connection -- Jackson Mahr
  How can Microsoft be such a valuable brand when most users are so resentful of the company and its products.
Apr 11, 2005 H&R Block - angling -- Peter J. Burger
  H&R Block hopes its name will sprout up throughout the year, not just in spring.
Apr 4, 2005 Les Poochs - doggy style -- Robert Sprung
  Can an old marketer learn new tricks from a canine fragrance brand?
Mar 28, 2005 Starbucks Coffee Liqueur - double shot -- Alycia de Mesa
  Two vices for the price of one: Starbucks introduces Coffee Liqueur.
Mar 21, 2005 London Underground - bridging the gap -- Jackson Mahr
  Can the London Underground take its quaint wartime brand into the 21st century?
Mar 14, 2005 agnès b - je ne sais quoi -- Jackson Mahr
  Fashion brand agnès b finds small is beautiful.
Feb 28, 2005 Land Rover LR3 - driven -- Alycia de Mesa
  LR3: How does the first Land Rover developed entirely under Ford Motor Company ownership handle?
Feb 21, 2005 Nalgene Outdoor - venturing -- Jared Salter
  Nalgene’s initial popularity started with a happy accident, but it took a bit more planning to turn it into a success.
Feb 14, 2005 OnStar - first aid -- Dale Buss
  General Motor’s OnStar technology arrives after a long journey.
Feb 7, 2005 IBM - reboots -- Chris Grannell
  What does the sale of IBM’s manufacturing unit to Chinese manufacturer Lenovo mean for either brand?
Jan 31, 2005 Google Appliance - nice rack -- Chris Grannell
  Google links its brand with a hardware offering, the Search Appliance.
Jan 24, 2005 Virgin - spreads -- Jackson Mahr
  How far can Virgin stretch before the message is no longer pure?
Jan 17, 2005 Walkers Sensations - chip shape -- Alicia Clegg
  Walkers Sensations brings a premium brand to the mainstream market.
Jan 10, 2005 Maxim - brand masturbation -- Abram Sauer
  Can Maxim extend its brand without shortening its life?
Jan 3, 2005 Michelin Man - pumped -- Jackson Mahr
  Michelin breaks all the rules with the Michelin Man and creates a lovable mark for a utility brand.