If all the world’s a stage, then every day we are surrounded by a thousand plays. The story of a MICHELIN Guide inspector might then be likened to that of a blockbuster musical: everyone knows the show, but only a few have the privilege of going behind the scenes to see its making.
There is a world of speculation around the work that our MICHELIN Guide inspectors do. Most imagine it to be the best job in the world — after all, who gets paid to eat, and to eat at the best restaurants around the world, no less?
However, eating is only a small part of the job. What most people don't see is the preparatory work such as data collection and field inspections that run day and night. "We have a lot to prepare for before every meal,” shares the inspector. “And it’s not about picking out a nice outfit but memorising every single detail of the restaurant."
“We try to get an understanding of the locals’ way of life. This way, we can have insight on their tastes and their culinary traditions so that we will be better able to recommend worthy restaurants.”
Each inspector visits at least eight shortlisted restaurants in a week, taking the time to learn about the chefs, their styles, histories, and menus. "At every new city, we have to familiarise ourselves with the lay of the land,” shares the inspector. This goes beyond walking a couple of streets. “We will explore and find out which districts businesses are concentrated in, which are usually the historical districts or the new developments.”
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Beyond the plate, an inspector also observes the atmosphere of the restaurant and the demeanour of the waitstaff. “There is a rumour in the restaurant industry that says that every MICHELIN-starred restaurant must have a beautiful washroom,” says the inspector, laughing.
Because his or her identity cannot be disclosed, an inspector must have very strong observational and interpersonal skills to make conversation with the restaurant staff to fact-check and to understand the inner workings of the establishment better — all without giving himself or herself away.
Although the inspector acknowledges that the whole package does affect the overall dining experience, he or she was emphatic that the absolute priority for judging is in the taste of the food and the clarity of the restaurant’s direction.
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Questions about an inspector’s job are perhaps eclipsed only by one other common question: Where do I sign up?
"Most of my colleagues have backgrounds in the food and beverage or hospitality industries. Not only are they familiar with the line of work; they are also very used to the long working hours required in this job,” the inspector shares. “However, among the inspectors I know, some came from marketing, and another used to be a lawyer!”
For the MICHELIN Guide inspectors, the long hours are a given. "It's normal for dinner to run until at least 9 or 10 in the evening, and some of the longest dinners I have had before the pandemic started at 6 p.m. and didn’t end until nearly midnight!”
“Though the hours can be long, having the privilege of visiting new restaurants and trying amazing new dishes are all part of the work I really enjoy.”
Being an inspector requires not only a sophisticated palate and a passion for food, but also the ability to cope with being alone. "Eating is more than just about the food. Eating is an opportunity to connect with people. It is an occasion to build relationships with the people you eat with. This social aspect is one of the reasons why I like eating,” expresses the inspector.
However, when eating becomes a job, and this job must be kept secret, inspectors can only wait until their off days to share meals with friends and family. The pandemic years and its isolation measures and travel restrictions have forced inspectors to leave home for several months at a time to work outside their home countries.
The rewards beyond the challenges
For those who persevere along the path, however, the rewards are clear.
It might be because of the association with copious amounts of eating that people might assume that most inspectors are well-fed and pot-bellied. But the opposite is actually true.
"When you know that you’ve almost hit your calorie count by the end of the workday, you tend to be more careful about your daily diet and not waste your quota! To maintain a healthy appetite, you’ll also start to develop the habit of eating breakfast and fruits,” the inspector explains. Even on the job, they are careful not to over-indulge.
“These days, a lot of photos and reviews can be deceiving. When we try a new restaurant, and it’s not quite up to par, we leave rather hungry.”
Turning a passion into a career is something that many can only dream of; but even when the dream comes true, being able to enjoy it may not be easy when things become mundane. "We don't have this problem. Everyone must eat, and every changing season brings its own ingredients. Even if it is the same restaurant, you will always discover something new each time you go there," says the inspector. Being able to do what you love every day is probably the biggest reward of being a MICHELIN Guide inspector.