The Michelin Guide, the bible of French gastronomy since shortly after it began giving star ratings to restaurants in 1933, has always been as well known for its mystique as for its muscle. Now, for the first time, a longtime inspector for the guide has gone public with criticisms of its procedures, and his comments -- published Friday in the prominent French newspaper Le Monde and Le Figaro magazine -- have the country's food-obsessed populace all atwitter.
Michelin inspectors have always been anonymous to the general public, and the editors of the guide have historically declined to answer questions about their procedures or to explain their reasons for promoting or demoting any restaurant.
But Pascal Remy, a Michelin inspector for 16 years, was fired in December in a dispute over his desire to publish a book based on journals he kept during his inspection tours for the guide. On Friday, a few days after Michelin released its ratings for 2004, the French press published stories quoting Remy as saying that:
* Michelin employed only five inspectors to review more than 10,000 restaurants in France in 2002 and 2003.
* Many restaurants aren't visited every year, even though Michelin issues a new guide, with new ratings, every year.
* Some restaurants (Remy wouldn't say which ones) are regarded as "untouchable" by Michelin -- i.e., so venerated that they would not be demoted from the top, three-star rating even if they no longer deserved to keep the rating.
* "More than a third of the three-star restaurants are not of the standard expected."
In an interview with Reuters news service in Paris, Derek Brown, editor of the Michelin Guide for France, denied most of Remy's accusations. "We wouldn't give three stars if we didn't think it was right," he said.
Brown said Michelin had more than five inspectors for France, though he wouldn't disclose how many more, other than to say that there were 100 for all of Europe.
He acknowledged that Remy was right on one point: "We have never said that we visit every hotel and every restaurant every year. We put the inspectors at the time we need them in the right place."
It wasn't just the substance of Remy's allegations that caused a stir in the French press. After all, he wasn't accusing inspectors of taking bribes to give good ratings. But no Michelin inspector has ever spoken publicly about what the inspectors do -- never mind criticizing the procedures or validity of the rating system.
Remy said he was fired because he insisted on publishing his book about his experiences with Michelin. Reuters quoted Brown as saying that Remy was fired because he insisted on a large cash payment in exchange for not publishing the book.
In releasing its new ratings, Michelin elevated three restaurants to three stars -- Les Loges de L'Aubergade in Puymirol, in southwestern France, and L'Esperance in St.-Pere-sous-Vezelay and La Cote St.-Jacques in Joigny, both in Burgundy.