Why are we asking this now?
Because Michelin, the French guide to fine dining, has just conferred its stars on British restaurants. In the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland 2008, published on Wednesday, 15 restaurants merit a star for the first time, among them Gary Rhodes's London eaterie Rhodes W1, and other less celebrity-infused but critically-acclaimed restaurants such as The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent (which collects its own sea salt to cure Serrano-style ham) and The Tean at the St Martin's Hotel in the Isles of Scilly. A further 14 restaurants lost a star in the annual Michelin merry-go-round.
Do the stars matter?
Certainly, at least to the chefs. Marco Pierre White dedicated his early career to winning three Michelin stars. Once he had them in the bag in 1995 at the age of 33 (the youngest Briton to do so), he lost interest in cooking for 18 hours a day. "I felt as though I'd finished my race," he wrote in his autobiography. "Boxers win heavyweight championships of the world and lose hunger, so to speak. Why should chefs be any different?"
Some chefs spend much of their time seeking to achieve one, two or three stars, much as some ambitious MPs endlessly plot a ministerial future. A star is an international mark of a restaurant's quality, even if some chefs and critics attack Michelin for encouraging an overly formal style of cooking. "M-Day" in mid-January is a nervous one in kitchens up and down the land.
How are stars awarded?
Michelin inspectors visit each premises once every 18 months, unless it is moving up or down the ranks. A star candidate will receive four visits. A two-star restaurant receives 10 visits before becoming a three-star. Inspectors travel over from the Continent to ensure consistency. Visits take place anonymously and Michelin pays the bills. Inspectors are on the road three weeks out of four, staying in a different hotel every night and eating lunch and dinner at a different restaurant every day. They write a report on every meal. On one side of A4, they score service, décor and location, on the other they plot the quality of their meal on a graph. One star denotes very good cooking in its category, two stars denote excellent cooking worth a detour, and three stars represent exceptional cuisine "worth a journey".
Don't the inspectors put on a lot of weight?
Actually, no, according to Derek Bulmer, the affable, bespectacled 57-year-old who edits the UK guide. Good food has not given him a paunch. Road accidents are a greater danger. During an average year, an inspector will work – if that is the word - from 7am to 11pm, eating at 240 restaurants and sleeping in 150 hotels, driving 18,000 miles. Inspectors have regular medical check-ups and a six-monthly cholesterol check. They are drawn from the catering trade and some have been chefs. If their identity is known, they book a table under an assumed name or ask a colleague to do the inspection. They stay away from the region for the next 10 years. An anonymous inspector says: "Even if the worst happens and the chef finds out who I am, it doesn't really change much. He is not going to be better, and nor is his food, simply because I'm eating at the restaurant. The only thing he could do would be to add some ingredients to my plate, but that's risky too, since a recipe is made with very precise proportions."
How was the guide founded?
André Michelin, the French industrialist who in 1888 founded the tyre company which produces the guides and sports the bulging tyre man Bibendum, was a keen gourmand. At a time when travel was a novelty, he decided drivers of the new motor cars needed to know the best places at which to stay and eat. At first, the guides were distributed free to chauffeurs, then sold to the public. Michelin published its first UK guide in 1974. Back then, recalls Mr Bulmer, some British restaurants had large menus offering 27 different ways to have a steak. "Everything came out of the freezer," he said.
How good are British restaurants now?
Better than in the 1970s, but not good internationally. Among those countries covered by Michelin, Britain has the worst performance per population. Two-thirds of the country's three-star restaurants are in a single village, Bray in Berkshire, which has The Waterside Inn and The Fat Duck. London has the third, Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. By comparison, Paris has 13 three-star places and Tokyo a record 25. Excluding the seven stars in the Republic of Ireland, the UK's tally of 115 is fifth of the nine country guides, behind France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal. Taking into account population, it is last. Switzerland has the most Michelin stars per head of population – one for every 89,389 (followed by Belgium and Luxembourg (109,552), France (117,629), Austria (159,932), Netherlands (215,827), Italy (236,406), Germany (395,240), and Spain and Portugal (420,794). Britain has a Michelin star for every 532,183 people.
What about the rival guides?
Zagat, Harden's, and Which? all publish restaurant guides, which attract varying degrees of media attention. Many readers deem them more accessible than Michelin's dense, symbol-packed guide to 2,700 hotels and 1,800 restaurants. Michelin, however, is still the industry's official bible and the one gourmands swear by, even if a substantial number of non-conformists and non-believers refuse to accept its omniscience – or style.
Is Michelin still relevant?
Some accuse Michelin of falling behind the times, of favouring formal European and, particularly, classical French dining, and of eschewing excitement and innovation. Terry Durack, The Independent On Sunday's food critic, finds Michelin interesting but no longer important. "It used to be the be-all and end-all but, at some point in the 1990s, they lost the plot," he complains. "I now associate Michelin with expensive, old-fashioned food taken in hushed, boring dining rooms.
"Too many restaurateurs tailor their restaurants to suit Michelin inspectors rather than customers, which means plush interiors, lavish glass and tableware, elegantly dressed serving staff and food that has been wrought to within an inch of its life."
Michelin says there are more Indian or Italian restaurants than French ones in its latest edition. The grand old man of haute cuisine has noticed the trend towards more casual dining and now lists 133 Bib Gourmand restaurants, including many curry houses and gastropubs, which offer "good food at moderate prices".
Are Michelin stars still relevant?
* Michelin is the only international system for testing and grading haute cuisine
* Its team of 70 European inspectors has unrivalled experience of dining out
* Chefs and restaurateurs consider the guide the most important for building a reputation and attracting customers
* Michelin is too old-fashioned and restrictive, because it is largely based on formal French cooking
* Chefs pander to its inspectors' preferences by cooking over-elaborate, fussy food
* Inspectors favour formal, heavy dining rooms rather than funky or fun establishments