Every so often, a company develops a marketing ploy so effective that it transcends the brand it was initially intended to represent and instead becomes an inseparable part of pop culture. The Michelin star concept is just one such marketing plot, and I got to try my first meal cooked by a chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant this weekend at Petit Le Mans.
It all starts off with two brothers and their burgeoning tire business.
Full Disclosure: I was invited to IMSA’s Petit Le Mans race by Michelin. While I was there to cover tire logistics, the company treated me to a very great meal cooked by a chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant, which was very kind because, while I do love delicious food and excellent wine, I know very little about either and would have been just as content with boxed mac n’ cheese and some Barefoot.
Driving France’s Turn-Of-The-Century Roads
From their rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand, France, brothers André and Édouard Michelin saw potential in the tire market when a bicyclist brought in a pneumatic tire that needed a repair. By all accounts, that repair was a failure, but the Michelin brothers took that as an opportunity to learn. Two years later, Michelin took out a patent for the removable pneumatic tire.
It wasn’t long before the pneumatic tire found a new use in the burgeoning automobile, but the forward-thinking Michelin brothers wanted to give folks a reason to hit the road, and they wanted the near-3,000 automobile drivers in France to have a reason to associate Michelin tires with pleasurable travel.
So, in 1900, Michelin released the Michelin Guide. This handy little pamphlet told drivers everything they’d need to know in order to have a successful trip behind the wheel — where to find gas stations or car mechanics, how to repair or replace faulty vehicle components, and what hotels and restaurants to try. That first, free print run saw Michelin distribute 35,000 copies.
To say that people loved it would be a bit of an understatement. Ten years later, Michelin had introduced similar guides for Algeria, Tunisia, Belgium, Switzerland, Bavaria, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the British Isles, Northern Africa, Italy, and Corsica. They also produced some English-language versions of the guide for travelers.
It looks like the goal to get drivers on the road by giving them a comprehensive list of things to see worked out in Michelin’s favor. The company provided travelers with a much-needed service and in return paired its name with travel for decades to come.
Earning A Michelin Star
The concept of a Michelin star didn’t enter the picture until 1926, the multi-star system didn’t pop up until 1931, and criteria for establishing those stars didn’t come until 1936. The brothers were inspired by other travel guides that provided similar rankings for restaurants. The goal was to reward certain restaurants for the quality of their cuisine.
Here’s how the Michelin Guide broke down its star awards at the time:
- One Star: A very good restaurant in its category
- Two Stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour
- Three Stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey
So, not exactly detailed, but the stars gave you an idea of what restaurants were good. If you were in town looking for a nice dinner, you’d opt for the one-star restaurant. If you were looking to make a night of it, you might go for a two-star joint. And those coveted three-star restaurants were the kind you planned entire trips around.
Since then, the process of awarding stars has become more opaque. Michelin reviewers are anonymous eaters who pop into a restaurant and see what it has to offer without ever being announced as such. Reviewers are not allowed to tell anyone about their work, not even their parents. Basically, you want to rate this restaurant based on the performance it would give anyone. Those reviewers then get together to decide which restaurants are worthy of which star.
Today, France retains the highest number of Michelin-starred establishments, with a total of 628. The United States, by comparison, has 169. As you can imagine, most of the best restaurants here are located in New York and California, though you can check out this list to find ones near you.
A Michelin-Starred Meal
Michelin awards stars not to individual chefs but to entire restaurants — but the chef that Michelin brought to Petit Le Mans, Gary Menes, pretty much is Le Comptoir, his one-star restaurant in Los Angeles, California. He’s one of just a handful of employees that work at the restaurant, and he and his team do everything together, from seating guests to cooking their food to doing dishes at the end of the night.
That’s possible in part because Le Comptoir offers a single seating of 10 people three nights a week. Prices for the eight-course dinner run around $175 for the food itself, but if you opt for the wine pairings with each course, you’ll add $105 to that price tag. Menes and his crew served us seven courses inspired by the local foods in North Georgia and Le Comptoir’s California home base.
Here’s how our menu shook down. Be prepared for a lot of long wine names and my thoughts on the dish:
Something amusing (which turned out to be roasted kale chips with aioli). Paired with a 2019 M. Brugnon Millesime Brut Champagne.
The kale was surprisingly good, mostly because it didn’t taste like kale and instead tasted like a potato chip. The champagne, though, was divine. And you can apparently buy it online for around $60 a bottle, which is cheaper than I expected.
Indian summer corn soup, cashew Greek yogurt, and bread crumbs. Paired with a 2016 Philippe Foreau Domaine du Clos Nadin Vouvray Sec Loire Valley.
This dish was actually my favorite of them all. The soup tasted like corn chowder, but the yogurt added a tangy kick to counteract its sweetness, and the bread crumbs tasted like rice krispies. The dry wine was also a nice contrast to the food; I liked it better after I’d eaten a bite than before I’d tasted anything.
Poached organic farm egg, greens from our garden, brown butter, lemon, herbs, sourdough bread. Paired with 2018 Le Artishasic La Terre Chardonnay Sonoma Coast.
You kinda mixed this salad together to create a Caesar-y dish. It was a salad. It was pretty good. The bread, though, was extremely good, and I had to restrain myself from asking for a to-go bag. The chardonnay, like most chardonnays, was good but not really my thing.
Butter poached Nova Scotia lobster, pommes puree, sauce Americaine, grape vierge. Paired with a 2018 Arnot-Roberts Vare Vinyard Ribolla Gialla Napa Valley.
While this was the favorite course of almost everyone else at my table, I can’t say that lobster is my favorite. The dish was beautifully prepared, and I could tell it was good lobster compared to my single other lobster experience at noted lobster joint Red Lobster, but for some reason, these sea critters just don’t do it for me. I was glad the wine was extremely good.
“Homemade pasta,” reggiano, French butter, black truffles (aka: truffle risotto). Paired with a 2017 Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo Monfalletto.
Not included in our description was the roasted chicken reduction that was drizzled over the top of this risotto. It was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had because it had a lot of layers of flavor, but I’m gonna be honest with you: I had no idea what the fancy shaved truffles did for the dish. If they added any extra flavor, I was unaware of it. The wine here was this gorgeous translucent ruby-like red that tasted like grape juice. I was a fan.
Grilled treviso, callote de boeuf, red wine vinaigrette, sauce vin rouge. Paired with a 2010 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Pessac-Léognan.
For some reason, I thought that treviso was a fish, so imagine my surprise when I was instead handed a plate with a slab of beef and a little hunk of lettuce. The beef was apparently Holstein, and it was extremely good, but most of it was cooked almost blue, which I cannot say I enjoy. The vegetation was very bitter and cut through the richness of the beef, but the real star of this meal was the wine, possibly because by this point I had had four other glasses of wine.
Sourdough donut, chocolate, creme chantilly, orange marmalade. Paired with a 2005 Chateau Climens Premier Cru Barsac Grand Vin de Sauternes.
The sourdough donuts were very much like the sourdough bread for me; we only got one, and I wanted more. They were extremely delicious and dusted in cinnamon-sugar, and the three side sauces were also great. The wine here was definitely a dessert wine and could have been enjoyed all on its own; it was cloyingly sweet, but it didn’t taste like cough syrup the way some dessert wines do. I really liked it, but again, that could have been because I’d had five other glasses of wine.
After having my first sort-of-kind-of Michelin-starred meal, I will say that it lived up to the hype. Each dish was elegantly crafted, so even if I didn’t personally like it, I could appreciate its balance of flavors and the way it paired with the wine to make a complete dish worthy of its renown.
But it was also hard to imagine how the food could get much better. Menes is the chef at a one-star restaurant — which is a difficult enough feat to achieve — but there are even fancier restaurants out there with better food? It’s hard to imagine. But not as hard to imagine as the fact that a tire company is responsible for one of the most comprehensive food guides in the world.