Always wondered what it’s like to be a Michelin Guide restaurant inspector?
Eating at the world’s best dining spots hardly sounds like a tough gig. One can only imagine the mountains of caviar, wine pairings and cheese boards that come with the territory.
But there’s much more to life as a Michelin inspector than free-flow foie gras.
Debuting in 1900 as a handy travel guide for early motorists, the Michelin Guide has evolved to become an international authority on all things gastronomic.
The company recently announced that it’s hiring an inspector in New York City, which piqued our curiosity.
To find out what the job entails, CNN quizzed Rebecca Burr, editor of the “Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland,” who worked as an inspector for 12 years before moving to her current role.
With nearly two decades at Michelin, Burr sheds new light on this mysterious job.
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Born in the UK, Burr attended culinary school and worked as a chef for nine years.
In 1998, she spotted a local job advertisement in a trade magazine, calling for inspectors.
Burr applied and, to her surprise, got the job.
A six-month-long training program quickly followed, where Burr shadowed senior inspectors to learn the ropes.
Inspectors book anonymously, pay their own bills, write in-depth reports following meals, monitor news, take food photos and visit a place as many times as necessary to verify their opinion.
The job is not for homebodies: Michelin inspectors eat a minimum of 275 restaurant meals per year and travel three weeks of every month.
“I quickly realized that Michelin was a very serious company,” Burr tells CNN. “I never imagined the amount of work that goes into the guides.”
Most inspectors have more than 10 years of formal hospitality or culinary training, though Burr says it’s helpful to build a team with complementary backgrounds.
“The ideal candidate is preferably a chef, but we also have some managers, some people that have focused on wine,” she says.
“We need an appreciation of what it takes to run a restaurant.”
On the road
The life of an inspector requires non-stop travel to keep up with new openings and the company’s ever-expanding projects.
“I just came back from Hong Kong and Singapore, and now I’m back in the UK,” says Burr.
“I have colleagues working in Scandinavia who are also responsible for the main cities in Europe.”
The team has the capacity to be wherever, whenever – but, more importantly, these round-the-world dining experiences provide valuable insight.
“We want the inspectors to gain knowledge and experience,” says Burr. “They draw from their experience from past visits and develop benchmarks.”
But traveling for work is not always as glamorous as it sounds.
“You have to be prepared to go to a country pub and dine alone,” she says.
“In Hong Kong at the height of summer when it’s really humid, and you have massive hotels to trek around, and you’re eating both lunch and dinner – these can be very tiring trips.”
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Life of mystery
Anonymity is crucial to the guides’ independent reputation, so inspectors are expected to safeguard their identities.
If you’re picturing 007 agents with disguises and pseudonyms, you’re not entirely off the mark.
While Michelin inspectors can reveal their identity to family and close friends, they usually book hotels and restaurants under a pseudonym.
“Restaurants have a system where they save numbers, emails and names, so you have to find ways to go in undetected,” she explains.
“When you run out of your friends and family’s names, you have to get creative,” she says, of devising pen names.
The most common mistake? Forgetting your secret identity.
“A colleague of mine walked down the stairs at a hotel, and the concierge said, ‘Good evening Mr. Jones’ … and he just walked right by him.”
Burr says she changes her appearance regularly, particularly hairstyles and clothes.
“Personally, I haven’t gone in with a mackintosh (coat) and a blonde wig or anything like that … but I know some inspectors who have worn disguises.”
Of course, if she’s been detected, which does happen, it’s not the end of the world.
“At the end of the day, the chefs are professionals, so they don’t change things too much. They want to please everybody – not just the inspector.”
Scouting out talent
While wining and dining has its perks, the most rewarding part of the job is discovering new talent.
“Our inspectors have great observational skills. They have to be inquisitive and stay alert,” says Burr.
“You might go to Cornwall [in the UK], for instance, and scour the area to see what’s new – [the inspectors] are always excited by finding a new chef with potential.”
Many inspectors will scout out new talent by word of mouth, often chatting with bartenders or local residents.
“Regardless of magazines and the Internet, nothing compares to driving around and actually being in the area.”
Though inspectors don’t interact directly with chefs, they silently cheer for their success.
“We can’t get too attached, because that isn’t what we do, but we like to watch their careers blossom,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to watch those talents evolve.”
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Serious star power
Once a year, each local team comes together for a “star meeting” where they discuss every single rating in the guide.
“We collect all of the reports for each restaurant and talk through them,” she explains. “It takes at least a day or two to get through it all.”
Michelin Guides have a clear-cut star rating: one star stands for “very good;” two, “worth a detour;” and three, “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”
The allocation of stars is a serious responsibility, not to be taken lightly.
If a restaurant loses a star, it can impact business dramatically. On the flip side, a new star can greatly enhance a restaurant’s potential.
“(After receiving a star) a man told us that his website crashed, with more people trying to make a booking in one day than he’d seen in half a year.”
“We hear of people expanding their restaurants, employing more staff – or putting a particular area of the country on the map, which is great for tourism.”
For new restaurants or star adjustments, inspectors visit at least three times, usually more, to before making a decision.
“Five times is not unheard of,” she says. “We want to be absolutely sure.”
A three-star dinner
In the case of The Fat Duck, helmed by chef Heston Blumenthal, Burr says her team visited eight or nine times before awarding the restaurant with three stars – the highest honor.
The restaurant began renovations in 2014 to its historic Berkshire address, in the English countryside.
In the meantime, Blumenthal moved the entire team across the ocean to the Crown Towers hotel in Melbourne, Australia, where the restaurant set up shop temporarily in 2015.
When the Berkshire location finally re-opened in late 2015, the maverick chef amazed diners with smoking cocktails, a beef-flavored chocolate bar and a story-book like menu designed as an itinerary.
One of the final inspectors to visit, Burr says the experience stands out in a sea of meals.
“[Heston] is an artist, and he exceeded expectations of an already high standard – just course after course of wonderful food,” she recalls.
“There’s a story behind each dish, and a lot of feelings and emotions. It’s a very special place.”
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While some chefs may find themselves in a league of their own, in general, the end goal is to have consistency across the guides.
“A star in the UK is the same as a star in Milan or a star in Hong Kong, and that is what makes a difference.”