Francis Mathieu Explains: the Michelin Star System

Sojourner Tours Guest: It’s funny, the Michelin name does ring a bell to me, but more as a car tire company than a restaurant system. It can’t all be the same thing, can it?

Francis Mathieu: Well, believe it or not, it is! This top restaurant rating system was created and is still run by the French Michelin tire company.

Sojourner Tours Guest: What? That’s crazy! How are the two related at all?

Francis Mathieu: You’ll see it makes sense. At the turn of the 20th century, as the first cars made their appearance on French roads, the Michelin brothers created a tire company. To boost demand for their product, they had the brilliant idea to publish a guide for French motorists that would incite them to go on road that would use up those tires. The first guide was free and advertised hotels, restaurants, gas stations and stuff like car mechanics. French culture being what it is, the guide gradually came to focus on fine dining and its star rating system eventually became the international beacon of restaurant excellence it is today.

Sojourner Tours Guest: That’s fascinating! I only have a vague idea of what the Michelin star system is. Can you please explain it to me?

Francis Mathieu: Sure! I’ll be glad to. To put it simply, it’s the most prestigious ranking system in the restaurant industry. Fine dining establishments may be awarded one, two and up to three Michelin stars.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Is this mainly for professionals in the food industry?

Francis Mathieu: No, it’s both for professionals and the public at large. The information gathered through this system is updated and published annually in the Michelin reference guide book, also known as the “Red Guide”.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Is it fair to assume that only one Michelin star is an average rating?

Francis Mathieu: Actually not, one such star means that a restaurant belongs to the cream of the cream of fine dining establishments. The vast majority of restaurants will never be able to boast even a single Michelin star.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Really? How many are there, do you know that by any chance?

Francis Mathieu: Actually, I do. Out of the millions of restaurants found throughout the world, less than 3000 have Michelin stars and most of them have just one.

Sojourner Tours Guest: How much of a difference is there between the stars?

Francis Mathieu: A lot! The quality, luxury and price increase dramatically with each extra star. They also don’t attract the same public, though some overlap is possible. Typically, a one-star place draws customers from all over the given region where it is located. A two-star restaurant attracts customers from the entire country. And because there are so few of them, a three-star one draws an international crowd from the entire world.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Wow! It sounds like an entire trip in itself for some of those people.

Francis Mathieu: Yes, it sure is. Many Michelin star restaurants even have an adjoining boutique hotel where guests can spend the night for the sake of convenience and to prolong the experience.

Sojourner Tours Guest: I’ve never eaten in one. I’m not sure if this is the right kind of place for me. It sounds a bit intimidating.

Francis Mathieu: Don’t worry! I think you’re going to love it! All are welcome, and anyone can enjoy the experience — except perhaps those who only like chains or fastfood joints. A Michelin star restaurant is fancy for sure, but all you need to do is dress nicely and be ready to be swept away by the quality.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Isn’t it expensive?

Francis Mathieu: Not this time, as it’s included in your Sojourner tour itinerary! It’s more expensive than a more simple restaurant, but let me tell you that I sometimes eat in a “nice” restaurant in Austin and think to myself “Wow, I could have eaten in a Michelin Star restaurant in France for that price.”

Sojourner Tours Guest: Right, so how much does it usually cost in France?

Francis Mathieu: It depends, but here’s a hot tip to experience this luxury relatively cheaply. Many one-star Michelin restaurants offer a special lunch menu priced around 30 euros. It’s a great deal worth every penny. Some places even offer this price range for dinner if you order a simple menu, like the entrée of the day paired with a dessert. And remember that in France, service and taxes are included in the sticker price. No 20% tip to add to the bill at the end!

Sojourner Tours Guest: Sounds good. That’s not outrageous at all. What about regular prices?

Francis Mathieu: So, full dinner menus at a one-star restaurant typically cost between 50 and 100 euros per person, depending on the set menu you select. We’re talking about a full meal of four or five successive courses. Two and three-star restaurants are very expensive and cost between 100 and 300 euros per person.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Can you tell me more about the kind of experience I should expect?

Francis Mathieu: Sure! You can expect a refined décor flawless service. Each table is waited on by highly trained staff who will treat you like royalty. The food will be fantastic, and it will be arranged on the plates so artistically that you will only break it up because it will be so mouthwatering. It may well be the tastiest meal you’ve ever had. You will even be served complimentary items that are not on the menu, like amuses-bouches, a small hors-d’oeuvre that comes before the first course, or miniature pastries with your cup of coffee.

Sojourner Tours Guest: It sounds amazing! I can’t wait to have my Michelin star meal now.

Francis Mathieu: I’m so happy you feel that way. Our objective at Sojourner Tours is for our guests to sample the full range of culinary experiences that France has to offer. That’s why we make sure our guests eat at least one meal at a Michelin star restaurant during their stay, whether it is in Provence, Catalonia, Périgord, or Franche-Comté.

Sojourner Tours Guest: So how do get those stars anyway?

Francis Mathieu: The Michelin guide remains secretive about the whole process. It employs professional critics who are like “secret agents”. They pay unscheduled visits to restaurants. They never identify themselves to ensure that restaurants don’t “put on a show” for them. What’s for sure is that restaurants are assessed on the quality of ingredients, the sophistication of the food preparation, the chef’s skills and creativity, presentation, service, but also the consistency of all that between visits.

Sojourner Tours Guest: I suppose that gaining a star’s a big deal, right?

Francis Mathieu: You can say that again! A star brings recognition, media attention and fame, but also a lot of new business. That being said, maintaining constant quality on so many fronts is a lot of pressure. It can be exhausting.

Sojourner Tours Guest: I see. Those stars can be a double edged sword then.

Francis Mathieu: Yep! That’s true. But for us, it’ll be the guarantee of a fantastic restaurant experience.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Yes, thank you for doing this! I feel so lucky!

Francis Mathieu: My pleasure! You know, not all great restaurants aspire to earn a star and some of my favorite eateries are holes in the wall that could never dream of qualifying for that. We also take our guests to some places because they are just perfect to sample the local cuisine of a given area, or because they’re the locals’ favorites, or are situated in a gorgeous place.

Francis Mathieu: For more detailed information on the Michelin star system, please visit the Sojourner Tours website: http://www.sojournertours.com/michelin-star-system/

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