Every year, the Michelin Guide shows up in Chicago like the Tooth Fairy, bestowing its prestigious stars upon the city's top dining institutions. A whopping 25 Chicago restaurants made the cut for 2020, including five newcomers. Though a Michelin rating is one of the top honors a chef can receive, very little is known about the anonymous inspectors who eat their way through the city and decide on those rankings. These top-secret food agents are employees of Michelin (which means they're not linked to any outside organizations) who are tasked with traveling the country and eating out all the time. Doesn't sound like a bad gig, huh?
Following Chicago's updated star rankings for 2020, we hopped on the phone with Michelin's chief inspector in North America to find out what goes on behind the scenes—from how many times he dines out in a year (a lot) to stripping a restaurant of its star. Read on to take a closer look at the secret life of a Michelin inspector.
How exactly does someone become a Michelin inspector? And how long have you had the job?
I’ve personally been an inspector for 13 years now. The team is pretty varied, but most inspectors follow the same kind of career history. They usually studied hospitality administration, they may have gone to a sommelier program, they may have graduated from a culinary school or program. By the time they come to be an inspector, they usually have years under their belt. It’s a pretty arduous interview process, but we’re looking for someone who has a really keen understanding of cuisine.
I've heard the training process is intense. What happens behind the scenes?
When a new inspector starts the position, there’s a lengthy training in which they are studying in their local market. They’re working with an inspector for each meal, and they’re pretty much shadowing an inspector for months at a time just to understand what we’re looking for and how to be inconspicuous. What [we] do have to hammer home is that when we are looking to award a restaurant with a star, the only thing we’re considering is the food on the plate. That takes some experience to understand. They also have training in international markets, so that could be training with inspectors in France, the U.K. or Asia. You’re not left alone as an inspector for quite a bit of time.
What's one major misconception that you think people have about Michelin inspectors?
That we’re old and French. No, I’m kidding. In the U.S., people would be interested to know that we’re pretty diverse—we come from a really wide range of backgrounds.
How often do you dine out for Michelin?
An inspector will eat upwards of nine meals a week—lunches and dinners. If you multiply that, it could be 275 to 300 meals a year.
Sheesh. Are there any foods you don't eat?
I don’t have any allergies, no. We all have dislikes, but we find ways to get around it.
Have you ever been "found out" or suspected at a restaurant you're inspecting?
No, I have not.
Is there a dining trend or cuisine that you find particularly exciting for 2020—especially in Chicago?
This year, we were really excited just to see the overall dining scene in Chicago—it’s really progressed and evolved considerably. Most notably, the expansion and representation of Asian cuisine—particularly Japanese—is one thing that really stands out for the 2020 selection.
Losing your Michelin star is a pretty big deal, and two Chicago restaurants (Dusek's and Roister) were stripped of their stars this year. How do inspectors make that call?
Any time a star is taken away, it’s a decision we take very seriously as a team. The five criteria for awarding a star are the quality of the ingredients, the cooking skills, the personality expressed in the cuisine, the value for money and consistency over time. If for some reason we have a meal that doesn’t quite align with those criteria, we’ll go back and give it another shot. If that second meal doesn’t confirm the star, then we have a discussion internally about what’s going on. Overall, it’s repeat visits and a final discussion and a unanimous decision for the deletion of a star.
Alinea is Chicago's only three-star restaurant. What does it take to reach that level?
It's a crystal-clear expression of those five key criteria—time and time again. It's exceptional quality, completely impressive skills, distinct personality that doesn't exist anywhere else, and a relatively good value considering the price. And again, those meals have to be consistent. If one person goes and has a three-star experience, we would expect not only the next inspector to have a three-star experience, but also all of our consumers and readers look at these awards and incorporate them into their dining adventures—they too should have a three-star experience.
Do you photograph your food and post it to Instagram like the rest of us?
We do. We take photos just like everyone else.
Which fictional food critic do you most relate to?
I like to think of myself more as James Bond than a grumpy old food critic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity