L’Ecole de Paris

Parker's guide, the Shanghai ranking, and the ratings of Moody's are all global points of reference. For dining, the bible remains the Michelin guide. How has an institution so French gained a foothold in distant climes? The example of Japan illustrates that besides universal qualities such as objectivity and independence, cultural features can be key assets for market penetration. Gwendal Poullennec, the Director of international development at the Michelin guide provided his insight on the occasion of a conference held on 1 December 2010 at the Ecole de Paris du management.

Michelin launched its first foray into Japan with the publication of its Tokyo guide for 2008 and while the market commonly presents formidable obstacles to outsiders close to 100,000 copies flew off the shelves on the first day. The Kyoto edition was honored in the temples of the ancient capital, an indication of a level of success that clearly merits a thorough analysis and has become a textbook example for all.

A model gradually takes shape
How did two brothers making tires ever get involved in what would become one of the best-selling gastronomic guides on the planet? The guide’s history is closely linked to the rise of the automobile and began life in 1900 as a purely practical matter to encourage drivers to take to the open road. Contained within were addresses for food and lodging, where to stop for repairs or fix a flat, and the hours of sunrise or sunset (essential in an era when all driving had to be done in daylight). Michelin’s decision to begin charging for the guide in 1920 met with little success and it was during this period that the initial sketch for the future classification was drawn beginning with a single star in 1926. A second and third star were added at the dawn of the 1930s introducing a nationwide food ranking system with one star denoting “a very good restaurant in its class”; two stars “excellent cooking, worth a detour”; and three stars “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. The influence on readers was immediate and rapidly created a hierarchy where one star indicated local renown and two stars national acclaim while three stars became the rarefied preserve of only the best and truly world-class establishments.

In the years before the eruption of the First World War guides were published in Belgium, Great Britain, and Italy but it was during the post-war boom known in France known as les trente glorieuses that the guide really hit its stride moving hand in hand with the development of tourism and explosive growth in the automotive sector. In the 1970s and 80s more than a million copies were being sold annually and the guide had become a veritable institution. Sales have leveled off somewhat from the peak years but remain considerable and the guide’s status as the gold standard for the hospitality industry in whichever market it is published is unassailable. For many professionals it is the only guide that counts and the power of the coveted stars to make or break culinary reputations translates into billions of dollars of revenue that is channeled according to the guide’s judgments.

What are the principal traits of the editorial policy of the Michelin guide? Precision and a decidedly practical bent have been indispensable but offer only a partial explanation for the brand’s global presence. One must trace the company’s roots back to its origins as surely the core of the guide’s power evolved organically through the interaction between a distinctly French philosophy and demands that are truly universal.

Universal criteria and expert judgment
The first criterion for success has been editorial independence and from 1907 onwards paid advertising was eliminated from the guide to ensure neutrality and impartial judgment. Inspectors go to extraordinary lengths to guard their anonymity always using methods of payment that conceal their identity and allow them to avoid any special treatment at the hands of restaurant owners and chefs.

The second is respect for the client as well as oneself and it was in this spirit that Michelin began charging for the guide. The decision was made less for financial gain and more as a concrete expression of the house marketing strategy which insists: “The customer will only respect what is paid for.”

Third, the professionalism of inspectors is guaranteed through a system of evaluation that diverges sharply from that employed by the majority of food journalists. Michelin stars are always awarded for what is on the plate. The principal criteria include the quality of the products, the culinary personality of the chef, mastery in cooking, the balance of flavors, and the relationship between quality and price. Inspectors are required to visit restaurants several times as significant importance is placed on the consistency of the establishment and its capacity to maintain high levels of quality throughout the year and across the entire menu.

Michelin employs roughly a hundred inspectors worldwide and around a dozen in Japan and all are required to spend their days moving from one restaurant to another filing reports on up to 400 meals annually. Most are said to be drawn from the hospitality industry and can make use of their considerable culinary experience as well as capacities for comparison. They might be experienced sommeliers possessed not only of refined palates but an exquisite sense of balance honed through long experience judging wines based on how they might complement a given dish rather than in isolation. They are trained to evaluate combinations of flavor with delicacy and benefit from a range of experiences that exceeds that of any chef due to the sheer number of restaurants visited annually. Needless to say, the opportunity to grow at the heart of the Michelin guide represents a seal of quality for any professional wishing to reach the pinnacle of the hospitality industry.

Going native
The expansion beyond Europe’s borders began at the dawn of the new millenium with Michelin guides published in North American cities and subsequently Asia. While the reputation of French culinary tradition greatly eased passage to this next stage of development great efforts have been made to ensure that the idiosyncrasies of each new locale are respected. In each case readers will be met with a guide deeply rooted to the geographical area it serves, written in their language and with the local readership in mind. In most cases no plans have been made for a French language edition.

The goal is not to create a local version of a French product but rather a seamless experience where readers are on familiar terrain and where inspectors are as much a part of the fabric of society as the restaurants they describe. This approach encourages editors to adapt to the locally prevailing norms, something especially important for the Japanese edition not least because some restaurants are private and require a formal introduction. Of course, the guide’s universality is one of its hallmarks and the majority of its content is independent of language as it consists of proper nouns, addresses, and icons such as stars that are standard across the globe. In this important respect each guide can lay claim to a degree of universality that remains accessible to all, regardless of origin.

The capacity to be simultaneously local and universal is without question a key element of the guide’s success. Nevertheless, the particularities of the Japanese market represented a stiff test of the limits of this dynamic. Would Japan, so proud of its ancient traditions, be willing to accept the intrusion of a foreign-based guide into a realm as rarified as the nation’s culinary tradition? Surely it would be impossible for the French palate to appreciate the nuance of flavors contained within certain Japanese dishes and for interlopers to make accurate judgments. How could it be possible to confirm that a foreign system of classification such as the three star accolade represents a reliable benchmark the world over?

The response was to be found in a single word… quality. More than personal taste an inspector’s evaluation rests on the quality of the products used in preparation. The criteria used to evaluate this essential component are relatively objective and quite portable between cultures and different types of cuisine. Far from creating uniformity this approach guarantees respect for local or regional particularities. The real difficulty for inspectors is to create a framework that responds to prevailing norms but this is largely a matter of experience and has little to do with culture. Teams for each guide are composed of both native and foreign-born inspectors and the tensions that can arise between the two sides are of immense benefit when formulating an accurate measurement for quality that is consistent with the specificities of the local market.

The Japanese exception
To successfully navigate the vagaries of the Japanese market one must create an innovative response sensitive to local reality that offers a solution the current milieu has been unable to provide. The history of tour guide publishing is virtually non-existent in the country and while the Minister for tourism has encouraged the introduction of a ratings system in the hospitality industry the reception has been lukewarm at best. One of the primary hurdles, deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche, is the taboo against subjective opinions and the potential loss of ‘face’ that they could provoke. Social behavior is strongly governed by the logic of reciprocal debits and this limits any scope for impartial judgment. As a foreign entity, the Michelin guide faces no such restrictions and can rely on the strength of considerable brand recognition to add weight to its point of view. As some of the world’s most avid consumers of leading luxury products, the Japanese accord enormous respect to the power of brand recognition as was so wonderfully illustrated by Kyojiro Hata, in his chronicle of Louis Vuitton’s mercurial rise on the Japanese archipelago, Louis Vuitton Japan: The Building of Luxury. His business model created a blueprint for success and illustrates clearly the logic employed by Japanese consumers when evaluating brand integrity. Of paramount importance are the brand’s values, which are its history and tradition, superior quality and craftsmanship, and a core philosophy.

Clearly, the Michelin guide conforms to these criteria for successful brand recognition and already commanded considerable respect upon entering the local market. Harnessing the power of its long history the guide used its credibility to offer a unique solution to the perennial Japanese stumbling block of comparisons between individuals in the culinary field. Industry professionals were able to transcend deeply held reservations and accept comparison primarily on the strength of their respect for the brand. A long history of rigorous and professional judgment along with and overriding concern for quality have made the guide the institution it is today and corresponded perfectly with the economic interest of all parties concerned in making the project a success. Industry professionals clearly felt that the moment was ripe for revitalization and were clearly focused on the need to stimulate interest and create publicity for dining establishments as a means to generate benefits for all.

Economics can only carry us so far however and the credibility of the guide along with its privileged position as an outside interloper allowed it to transcend the local value system and impose judgments based on objective reality in a domain that was traditionally considered subjective and personal. By creating space between those being judged and those responsible for judging, a significant stumbling block, long recognized by locals, was removed from the Japanese psyche. One attendee reminded others at the conference of the impact American professor W. Edwards Deming was able make on Japan’s industrial rebirth through his introduction of applied statistics to the manufacturing process following a series of seminars in the 1950s and the consequent objectivity that resulted from the implementation of his methods of statistical process control. Statistics freed management from the weight of interpersonal relationships when making critical judgments which contributed to the spectacular growth of the manufacturing sector over the next ten or fifteen years by which time the land of the rising sun had become a world beater in terms of quality and Deming himself had been elevated to hero status in the eyes of many Japanese.

One article that appeared in the country’s leading financial publication compared the cultural shockwaves provoked by the launch of the Michelin guide to the economic ones that ensued in the wake of Commodore Perry’s gunboat diplomacy in 1853, a defining event in the Meiji restoration and the birth of modern Japan. That the guide would spark controversy should have been expected. The most symbolic was the scandal that erupted when the classification violated Japanese veneration of seniority by awarding three stars to the pupil of a former master who received only one. Newspaper editorials fretted over whether it should be expected that the apprentice one day exceed the master or if it was a mistake to make public such a dishonor in the first place. For the most part however, the Japanese public was remarkably receptive to the launch and the press treated it as a major cultural event.

Local flavor
As the country’s most cosmopolitan city Tokyo was the natural choice for the first edition of the Japanese guide, since it is in direct competition with other international cities. Hospitality professionals received the announcement with enthusiasm reflecting an understanding of the logic that placed them not only in competition with each other but with their peers across the globe. Whatever the results Japanese culinary tradition would see its stature grow. The truly decisive moment arrived however with the announcement of the Kyoto edition as the ancient capital has long been the cultural and spiritual heart of the land of the rising sun and the overwhelmingly positive response of chefs in the region was convincing evidence that the Michelin guide’s strategy was working.

The chefs and restaurant owners of the Japanese heartland wasted no time in bringing the country’s legendary work ethic to bear on the project ensuring the enterprise would be a successful one. Institutional support played a role and the region’s minister for tourism was quick to lend support. The guide was unveiled under the eyes of Kyoto’s mayor who saw fit to attend in traditional dress along with the minister for tourism who wore red as a very clear reference to the guide’s classic color scheme. In a country of rigid formality such visible support was a clear indication of good faith on the part of local authorities. Yet without the clear backing of professionals, the fanfare would have been for naught as they act as the final arbiters of quality to be traversed before adoption by the wider society.

The philosophy of the Michelin guide and its teams of inspectors has never been adversarial towards those being judged and this remains key to its continued success. What motivates both parties is a passion for culinary excellence and this common ground ensures there is never a danger of conflict between opposing sides of the kitchen door, or between the restaurants being classified. While competition advances the art the guide prefers its role to be that of a mediator between parties rather than a fanner of flames which explains our inspector’s jealously guarded reputation for impartiality.

In the first year of Japanese publication 25 restaurants received the coveted two star ranking. The two star ranking indicates superior cuisine and is exceedingly rare with only about three-hundred restaurants worldwide receiving such an accolade. The fact that the following year saw 11 more Japanese restaurants added to the list suggests the intensity of competition that flourished in the wake of the first publication. Japanese chefs have become true believers and in the carnival atmosphere that surrounded the launch of the 2010 Tokyo guide each and every three star chef was in attendance despite the event taking place during business hours and receiving notification only hours in advance.

The reputation of Michelin among industry professionals has been elevated as a result of always focusing strictly on the quality of the cuisine. The couverts system of crossed-knife-and-spoon icons ranks the service, comfort, and ambience but the coveted stars reflect solely what is “on the plate”. Indeed, one of Tokyo’s only three star establishments exists down a narrow flight of stairs and if you need to use the washroom you will have to step out onto the landing! Yet over a lifetime in the city’s legendary fish market the chef has cultivated relationships that ensure he receives only the best of which his skill alone is able to draw out the raw quintessence.

Against this backdrop the role of the public has been essential and on the day of the guide’s launch on 22 November 2008 over 100,000 copies were sold rising to 300,000 in the first month. Representing, for its launch in the Tokyo area, three times the number of Harry Potter books sold over the corresponding period the overwhelming success must however be tempered by the trend away from paper, already well underway in France. No doubt history will continue to be written by way of iPhone applications as the guide continues to evolve and create its place in a world the Michelin brothers could only have imagined.


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