The Big Question: How does the Michelin guide award its stars – and do they still matter?

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?

Yes...

* 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

No...

* 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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most