Michelin launches its Green Guide that reviews and rates tourist attractions and restaurants

In 1900, brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin published the first Red Guide. It went on to become the world’s most influential food guide. So influential, that in 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau reportedly committed suicide when he heard rumours that his restaurant, Côte d’Or , in Burgundy, would be downgraded from three to two Michelin stars. Admittedly, this is not the most cheerful story to begin with. And no doubt, there were other factors involved in Loiseau’s tragic end. But the point is that Michelin is taken very seriously, and for chefs, the ultimate triumph is to attach three Michelin stars to their name.

So it’s not surprising that there was a tremendous buzz in town when Michelin decided to launch its first guide. Granted, this is a Green Guide, concentrating on travel. Nevertheless, it's Michelin’s first step into India, and they've chosen to do it in Chennai. Prashant Prabhu, president of Michelin AIM (Africa, India & Middle East), launched the Guide at The Park hotel, stating that they decided to write the book on Tamil Nadu as a way of saying ‘thank you’. “This is the state where we are building a Michelin type manufacturing plant, and it's welcomed us. So this is our humble gesture in return…”

Selling tyres, after all, is where it all began. “In 1900 when the first Red Guide was published, automobiles were not as reliable as they are today. They broke down, and took time to be repaired,” says Prabhu. “Travellers would find themselves in unfamiliar towns, at a loss for what to do. So Michelin wrote this guide, and gave it to garage owners.” By 1910, the company started printing roadmaps. “The idea was to encourage people to travel, so they used the tyres,” says Prabhu, adding, “It was marketing before marketing was even known.”

While the Red Guide is undoubtedly Michelin’s strength, they have a range of Green Guides, most set in Europe, mainly France. Sold in 23 countries, they’re available in ten languages so far. Will we see a Red Guide in India soon? “Well, we’re waiting to see how successful we are with this,” says Prabhu diplomatically.

Like the Red, this guide uses a three star system for recommending sights ranging from ‘interesting’ to ‘worth a detour’ to the ultimate — “worth a trip”. At first glance the information is exhaustive, and with essays on everything from Carnatic music to literature . The Guide obviously follows an international template, with information meticulously filed under specific categories. Even tourist sights, for instance, are divided into ‘Religious’, ‘Historical’ and ‘Museums,’ with sub-categories listing the specifics.

That said, there are some glaring gaffes. Even though this is a travel guide, it’s still a Michelin, so it’s only natural that people will first look at the list of restaurants. Not only does it contain a completely arbitrary selection, but it also lists at least three restaurants that don’t exist anymore. Baan Thai closed more than a year ago. They talk of ‘Chef Thomas’ at Sparky’s, although the restaurant closed almost two years ago, after Chef Thom Petty passed away. They even list ‘Qwiky’s’ at GeeGee Emerald, stating that it has 70 outlets across India, when the café closed more than five years ago. While errors with guides of this sort are unavoidable, since the restaurant scene changes incessantly, being more than five years out of date is inexplicable.

Considering this is the guide’s first foray into India, it’s disappointing that they haven’t put more effort into the research. Already, Michelin’s guides are under fire from critics. Especially after Pascal Remy, Michelin reviewer for 16 years, wrote a tell-all manuscript in 2004, stating that each restaurant is visited just once in two or three years, and not the 18 month average claimed by Michelin.

Still, most of the tourist information seems to have been painstakingly collated, and the authors have made a special effort to find rare festivals, quirky excursions and signature street food. The prose can be heavy, unlike the popular Lonely Planet series, but it makes up for its stodginess with a battalion of facts and figures. Unfortunately, you need to take some of them with a pinch of salt. Or should we say, a pinch of fleur de sel. It’s Michelin after all.