How a Michelin Restaurant Reviewer Doles Out Stars

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We’ve learned that wine ratings and medals awarded in wine competitions are arguably meaningless. What about the similarly snobby world of restaurant reviews?

A New Yorker writer gets to tag along with a Michelin inspector, who lives a very cloak-and-dagger existence to maintain anonymity:

Michelin has gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain the anonymity of its inspectors. Many of the company’s top executives have never met an inspector; inspectors themselves are advised not to disclose their line of work, even to their parents (who might be tempted to boast about it); and, in all the years that it has been putting out the guide, Michelin has refused to allow its inspectors to speak to journalists.

Inspectors often eat alone—because anyone they eat with would probably have to become aware that the person was a Michelin reviewer. I’m using the word “reviewer,” though from the NYer story it seems like Michelin is more comfortable with the loftier term “inspector.” Appropriately, inspectors tackle their work with cold Sherlock Holmesian logic and science. From the NYer piece:

I asked her what she liked about it.

“It’s not really a ‘like’ and a ‘not like,’ ” she said. “It’s an analysis. You’re eating it and you’re looking for the quality of the products. At this level, they have to be top quality. You’re looking at ‘Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?’ And then you’re looking at the creativity. Did it work? Did the balance of ingredients work? Was there good texture? Did everything come together? Did something overpower something else? Did something not work with something else? The pistachios—everything was perfect.”

So that’s the system. Sounds like a hoot. Maybe the inspector always eats alone because no one wants to go out to eat with her during what seems like a pleasure-free dining experience. And, more to the point, the review system seems about as scientific (or not) as the opinion of a wine critic. They’re making judgment calls, and what it comes down to is: Do you trust this person’s judgment? Most people don’t drink wine like a wine critic. Most people don’t eat food and analyze it like the Michelin inspector describes above. The inspectors, reviewers, and critics are looking to answer different questions than the ones you probably want addressed, such as “Um, does it taste good?”

Naturally, the folks behind the everyman Zagat’s restaurant reviews have issues with the Michelin approach, and just because it’s in their self-interest to bash Michelin doesn’t mean the Zagats’ take is invalid. From the NYer:

Not everyone, however, is convinced that anonymous experts with bottomless expense accounts are the key to a dependable restaurant guide. “We’re coming at it from a completely different perspective,” says Nina Zagat, who dreamed up the idea of a customer-driven food survey with her husband, Tim, in their Upper West Side apartment thirty-one years ago. Today, Zagat covers more than ninety cities worldwide, is available as an iPhone app, and remains the top-selling restaurant guide in New York. “We’ve never believed that there were experts that should tell you what to do.”

“I’d love to know what their training is,” Tim Zagat added, speaking about Michelin’s inspectors. “Usually, the experts—for example, the major critics for the major papers—you know what their background is. But this business of making a virtue out of not knowing? I question it. How are you supposed to judge their expertise if you don’t have any idea who they are?”

I’d suggest that you follow the advice of food and wine critics only if you identify with who they are, if you like what they like, if they’re after what you’re after. Basically, follow their advice if you’re a wannabe critic.

As for me, I like a good value, like the 20 bargain wines recommended by wine buyers in this SF Chronicle story, all priced at $15 or less per bottle.