Underrepresentation in Fine Dining
Why Spatial Clustering of Michelin Distinctions Narrows Our View of Fine Cuisine
(And How This Can Change)

Aura Walmer, December 2023
Let’s Set the Table

What comes to mind when you hear the words “fine dining?” You might imagine highly curated arrangement of exotic ingredients — a small cluster of vibrant color placed by tweezers on a vast plate of white porcelain. Perhaps you think of several micro-courses, graced by rare truffles from Italy, perfectly seared scallops, or aromatic sauces. The Michelin Guide, an infamous standard for fine cuisine, has certainly been a player in painting this kind of picture in our cultural mind.

Regardless of distinction tier, Europe constitutes the vast majority of Michelin star restaurants. While this is not surprising, giving that the Michelin Guide did not extend beyond the European continent until after 2005, the global weight and influence that the Michelin star carries is undeniable and consequently skews overall expectations of fine cuisine.

The rigidity of the Michelin system and the hyper-consistency with which it operates fuels growing underrepresentation in the world of fine dining. For example, in the U.S., Michelin restaurants continue to be vastly Eurocentric, with significant price premiums, despite the expansive and popular portion of the food scene that is of “ethnic” origin. While there exists an enormous, diverse ocean of superb restaurants in the world, the slice of those receiving prestigious recognition remains quite homogenous.

History

The Michelin Guide was conceived by the two founding brothers of the very same Michelin Tire company, in the hopes of promoting automobile travel and demand for tires at the turn of the 20th century. The idea that Andre and Edouard Michelin had was to encourage travel by car throughout France by awarding recognition to notable hotels and restaurants. This came in the form of a convenient guide, that by 1936 was accompanied by the following ranking criteria:
1 Star: High quality cooking, worth a stop!
2 Stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour!
3 Stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey!


Almost a century later, and a seemingly-recent two decades after the Michelin Guide broadened its reach beyond its home continent, Europe remains in the indisputable spotlight of Michelin recognition. France alone constitutes almost a fifth of all Michelin star restaurants. The only country that stands out as an exception to this rule is Japan, which claims roughly 12% of Michelin star awards.
Spatial Clustering Breakdown (see infographic):
Europe: 68%
Asia & Pacific: 23%
North America: 7%
South/Latin America: 1%
Middle East: <1%


What's Causing the Cluster?

1: Strict Consistency
While Michelin has maintained an impressive standard over many decades, its uniformity has arguably fortified the exclusive, narrow lens through which we view restaurant quality. Chris Watson, one of the only former Michelin inspectors to publicly reflect on the inner-workings of the Michelin review process, describes the importance placed on restaurant consistency. He recounts, “They're looking for similarity in everything. So one Michelin inspector eats a dinner in a restaurant, and the following night, another inspector goes and eats exactly the same meal in exactly the same restaurant and the result should be the same.” Furthermore, the inspectors’ expectations and standards may be further solidified by their strict, unwavering training program, feeding back into a bias towards European techniques and traditions. This begs the question of whether the Michelin star system keeps the door of culinary recognition shut to creators with non-Western perspectives.
2: The Price Premium Effect
Another way that the Michelin system may have an effect on reinforced exclusivity is the impact of a Michelin distinction a restaurant’s prices. Because of their prestige, Michelin stars change what people expect to pay at a restaurant and thus what a restaurant can charge. According to one study, Gergaud et al. (2015), “one Michelin star increases price by 14.8%, having two Michelin stars increases price by 55.1%, and having three Michelin stars increases price by 80.2%” (Carly Shin, Stanford Review). Thus, not only does a Michelin recognition make a restaurant inaccessible to the general population, it also creates a scenario in which a restaurant is serving a high-income, privileged demographic. With a narrowed customer base also comes the narrowing of expectations around the dinging experience.
3: Cuisine Bias
There may be a reason we associate Michelin restaurants with gourmet French food or omakase sushi. Not surprisingly, the highly skewed geographic distribution of Michelin star restaurants is mirrored in an equally-skewed distribution of cuisine classifications. Michelin star restaurants are dominated the following cuisine categories (ranked by highest frequency):

Modern Cuisine, Creative, Japanese, Contemporary, French, Modern French, Classic.

Beyond “French” and “Japanese,” these categorizations are vague, withholding visibility of ethnic influence and keeping stereotypes rigid.
4: Barrier to Entry
Michelin prides itself on anonymity and equal-assessment of the candidates under its purveyance. However, this reputation might create the false impression that Michelin inspectors are visiting a dispersed, unbiased selection of sites and treating locations equally. Yet as it turns out, there is a barrier to entry that is not well known to the general public. Erika Adams, editor of Eater Boston, points out that in the last decade, Michelin has implemented a system of asking city tourism boards to pay for restaurant inspection coverage in their area. In recent years, some tourism boards “have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Guide to evaluate restaurants in their regions” (Sporkful, 2023). But not all city tourism boards will find the cost of this evaluation worthwhile based on their budget. The problem is that most people are not aware that this system exists, and people can be quick to dismiss the quality of a city’s food scene if there are no Michelin star restaurants in the area. Another layer to this barrier is that Michelin will not evaluate just any city; the city has to meet Michelin’s standards of restaurant scene maturity, which may be quite subjective to the company.


How Will This Change?

With the rise of social media, there is a new flavor of food criticism emerging that may help break down the exclusivity of the Michelin paradigm. In an interview on It’s Been A Minute from NPR, Brittany Luse and Jaya Saxena (Eater correspondent) discuss how influencers like Keith Lee use platforms such as TikTok to share their reactions to restaurants. These critiques expand accessibility within the food scene, speaking to a wider audience that is simply navigating the decision of where to eat a great meal. These critiques might often include restaurants with less visibility than the typical Michelin star restaurant, encouraging cuisine inclusivity and transforming our definition of fine dining.

Another avenue for change is the broadening of distinction categories awarded by Michelin. The “Big Gourmand” category was introduced by Michelin in 1997 to adjust the stereotype that the guide is all about ‘expensive’ fine dining (Michelin blog feature, October 2022). It is a distinction awarded to quality restaurants with an affordable price point, though the price limit varies from country to country based on the cost of living. Michelin argues that there is great diversity among the restaurants bestowed with this award. It’s up for debate as to whether these awards will make a notable dent in the improving the persistent homogeneity Michelin star restaurants.

With ever-dynamic and evolving communities offering up colorful and innovative culinary expressions, their global visibility should grow with proportional cadence. Yet, we see that acknowledgment and exposure is not often given to many of those who deserve it. Michelin has an incredibly influential position in the realm of perception towards fine dining. While the company is by no means bound to any agreement or external enforcement, it should not let its tradition of consistency act as a blind eye to a transforming global food scene. Michelin will not maintain its relevance unless it develops an improved awareness of the fine dining bubble it has a hand in creating, and takes larger action towards changing it.
Full List of Resources
Direct:

Michelin Guide Website & History of the Michelin Guide: https://guide.michelin.com/th/en/history-of-the-michelin-guide-th
Michelin Guide Feature: “What Is The MICHELIN Bib Gourmand Award?” https://guide.michelin.com/us/en/article/features/the-bib-gourmand

Articles:

Stanford Economic Review Blog: “Expert Opinion and Restaurant Pricing: Quantifying the Value of a Michelin Star” by Carly Shin, The George Washington University (July 8th, 2018) https://stanfordeconreview.com/2018/07/08/shin-michelin-star/
The Conversation: “How fine dining in Europe and the US came to exclude immigrant cuisine and how social media is pushing back” by Daniel Merino and Nehal El-Hadi (July 6th, 2023) https://theconversation.com/how-fine-dining-in-europe-and-the-us-came-to-exclude-immigrant-cuisine-and-how-social-media-is-pushing-back-podcast-209201
Eater New York: “Michelin Announces 2022 Stars for New York City” by Ryan Sutton and Luke Fortney (October 6th, 2022) https://ny.eater.com/2022/10/6/23389696/michelin-restaurants-nyc-stars-2022
Podcast Episodes:
The Economics of Everyday Things: Michelin Stars https://freakonomics.com/podcast/michelin-stars/
The Conversation Weekly: “How fine dining in Europe and the US came to exclude immigrant cuisine and how social media is pushing back” https://theconversation.com/how-fine-dining-in-europe-and-the-us-came-to-exclude-immigrant-cuisine-and-how-social-media-is-pushing-back-podcast-209201
It’s Been A Minute (NPR): “What restaurant trends tell us about the economy and culture” https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1197954260
The Sporkful with Dan Pashman: "How Do Michelin Stars Actually Work?” https://www.sporkful.com/how-do-michelin-stars-actually-work/
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