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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Traveling in France with the Red Michelin Guide. The Red Michelin Guide’s History and Bibendum, the Michelin Rubber-Tire Man.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
  Updated November 2015
Michelin began manufacturing tires in the 1880’s.
Michelin patented the first usable pneumatic tire and has since patented many  of the other tire related products we use today, The company remains one the top three tire manufacturers in the world. Michelin was established in Clermont-Ferrand in the region of the Auvergne. Clermont- Ferrand is now a city of nearly 150,000 and it remains the home of Michelin’s head office.  

The Michelin Man
Photograph by courtesy of carlfbagge.
The first Michelin guide.
In 1900, Michelin published its first guide. The guide gave French car owners a guide to find mechanics, petrol stations, tire repair shops as well as hotels and places to eat. The Michelin man, the company’s logo,  appears to be made out of inner tubes and he does have a name, Bibendum. When Michelin needed a name for their rubber-tire man they turned, in the 1900's, to France’s undisputed arbiter of the best in French cuisine, Curnonsky.  Curnonsky was then the  man upon whose word the fate of every new restaurant rested.  Curnonsky was and remains the only person ever to have been awarded, by the French Press, the title: Prince des Gourmandes, the Prince of Gourmands.
At that time any name that the famous Curnonsky chose would, automatically in France, be accepted; Curnonsky gave the Michelin rubber-tire man the name Bibendum. 

The name Curnonsky chose  for the Michelin man, Bibendum, comes from a line in a standard schoolboy's Latin language class poem written by Horace.  Horace was a freed slave who became a famous Roman/Greek poet. The line from which Curnonsky chose the name reads “nunc est bibendum”, meaning it’s time for a drink and so Bibendum became the Michelin man’s name. 
The stained-glass window of  the Bibendum restaurant
 in the Michelin Building, Brompton, London, UK
Photograph by courtesy of Jay Cross
The Michelin Red Guide.
For nearly 100 years, the Michelin Red Guides have marked, in France, the leading restaurants with one, two or three stars. The star rating system began in the 1920’s. Restaurants outside France were added in the late 1950's.  Michelin created their own format for checking, and rating the food that restaurants offered. The Michelin system remains unique through its size as no other guide can spend enough to follow such a large number of restaurants anonymously. However, other guides, in France judging local restaurants, using different systems often achieve similar results.  When the results are very different there is usually a good reason that links to the particular point system used. 
How does the Michelin Red Guide work
The Red Michelin Guide grades the restaurants that meet their minimum comfort level with crossed spoons and forks. The lowest rating is one crossed fork and spoon. Every time a crossed spoon and fork is added the reader knows the comfort level increases. At the top of the list, are the most luxurious restaurants with a maximum  of five crossed forks and spoons in red. N.B.: The comfort level does not tell the traveler anything about the quality of  the food. Hotel comfort levels are marked in a similar manner by little buildings instead of spoons and forks, the most comfortable will be marked in red.

The importance of the Red Guide
The Red Guide is very important for the traveler in France. When you arrive  in a strange town or village, the Red Michelin guide will find you somewhere to eat and sleep. On more than one occasion, I have arrived in a small town, and the Red Guide has saved me from a possible sleepless night.  For that alone, I give the French Red Michelin top marks. If they had told me a little more, even without grading, about the type of food served in the restaurants in town, I might have been saved a poorly prepared diner.

The stars.
One star:  A very good restaurant..
Two stars: A restaurant that merits a detour to visit.
Three  stars:  The ultimate accolade, Exceptional cuisine and worth going out of your way to visit.  The restaurants graded with three stars appear in the guide with some information on the dishes available; however, you will need to know about something about the cuisine as no explanations are given. In France there are 28 three star restaurants, a number that has not changed significantly over the years. In 2014 the UK had four three star restaurants and the USA had ten.


The Michelin Stars.
The Bib Gourmand:
Apart from the stars the Red Guide offers a Bib Gourmand rating. The name is arrived at  by abbreviating the Michelin man’s name from Bibendum to Bib. To rate a Bib Gourmand a restaurant must offer a high standard “Menu à Prix-Fixe,” a fixed-price menu, at a reasonable price. The fixed-price menu will include an entrée, the French starter, a main course, the plat principal, and a dessert. The prices that Michelin considers reasonable change with location and prices are updated annually. For France Michelin also prints a special Red Guide for France called: Les Bonnes Petites Tables; this guide includes only those restaurants that have been awarded a Bib Gourmand. The 2015 edition included 650 restaurants, all around France, with high quality fixed-price menus for less that 32 Euros. (38 USD, 25 Pound Sterling).  For more about fixed-price menus in France see the article: When a French Menu is Not an English Menu! 
The Bib Gourmand
Michelin also publishes Green Guides. However, the  Green Guides are travel guides and have nothing to do with food or lodging. Together the Red Guide  and the area’s Green Guide are considered essential companions when travelling in France.
The Michelin Building in London, UK.
This unique building was built in the early 1900’s.
Photograph courtesy of Chris Sampson.
The Red Guide’s competition.
The Red Guide Michelin leads, in sales, by a long way, in France, from its nearest competitor, the Guide Gault Millau.  The Guide Gault Millau rates the restaurants they consider good to excellent not with stars, but with one to five Toques Blanche. A toques blanche is the white, tall, chef’s hat. If you are searching for restaurants in an area where you have no prior information use  the Michelin Red Guide and  the Gault Millau together along with a local guide book, and of course the internet. Together you will find good restaurants that meet your budget. The founders of the Gault Millau  were the two food writers who gave the name to Nouvelle Cuisine.  Nouvelle cuisine in the 1950's and 1960's changed France's kitchens and gave birth to today's modern and lighter cuisine.

Chef holding his menu and wearing a Toque Blanche.
The toque blanche us the traditional chef’s white hat.
Photograph courtesy of Grant Cochrane through
About Curnonsky,
The man who named Michelin’s rubber tire man Bibendum.
 Curnonsky was an author and the accepted leader of the food critics of his day. His real name was Maurice Edmund Sailland, (1872 -1956), but all knew him as Curnonsky.
Curnonsky, like most of his late 19th-century early 20th century colleagues, at least those who could afford to own cars, was classically educated. Classically educated meant that they studied, the history, politics and philosophy of ancient Rome and Greece.
Today, maybe, Michelin should provide a new name for their rubber tire man that is more politically correct, Bibendum means " It’s time for a drink" and drinking and driving no longer mix. Michelin could organize an international competition that would produce more fame and fortune for their tires and their red and green guides. However, I doubt that there any Latin or Greek quotes, meaning “It’s time for a rest stop” or “Check your tire pressure.”
 In the 1950’s Curnonsky, together with three like-minded individuals established the La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. Confréries are brother and sisterhoods that  support and promote  specific foods and/or wines. The Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, mostly just called  La Chaîne is an international gastronomic society, and its fame lives on, long,  after  Curnonsky passed on.  La Chaîne  is based in Paris, where else?  La Chaîne is devoted to promoting fine dining and the camaraderie and pleasures of the table.  It is not, as some seem to believe an award to an excellent restaurant. Today La Chaîne still brings together professionals and others from the world of  fine foods. 

Connected Posts:
Nouvelle Cuisine? What ever happened to Nouvelle Cuisine? Where is Nouvelle Cuisine?

Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu.
Copyright 2010, 2012, 2015.
For information on the unpublished book behind the French Menu
contact Bryan Newman