BERNARD NAEGELLEN can't help himself. He walks into the lobby of a swank five-star hotel and his eyes scan the carpet for dust, examine the windows for the slightest blemish and note with approval when a smiling staff member approaches offering help. The debonair Frenchman is no normal guest. The former hotelier is director of Guide Michelin, the most influential travel and culinary publications in Europe and the most famous guidebooks in the world. Last year, 550,000 copies of the French-language edition were sold, 425,000 in France. This year, because of centenary packaging, he expects sales to top 800,000. There are also guides to nine other European countries, all in the language of the land. The idea is that easily understood symbols explained in many languages in the foreword make it simple for users to understand what a hotel or restaurant has to offer. A star in a Michelin Red Guide can send connoisseurs halfway across Europe seeking a good meal. Naegellen's power is extraordinary, which is why he is careful to use it in a responsible manner. Although there is no Guide Michelin in Asia and his publications do not cover Hong Kong, Naegellen automatically inspects every hotel he walks past, stops and peers in restaurant windows. He's been a Michelin inspector much of his life, and the habits of his vocation never die. 'When an inspector goes into a hotel or restaurant, we have the customer in mind,' he explains. 'An establishment does not have to be elite. It can be a simple family place. But it must have value for money. The more a place charges, the more it must give. The standards must rise with the price.' Then there is the 'promise'. Does a restaurant live up to its name? Does it deliver what it offers? The faceless inspectors never announce a visit. 'We're not trying to catch out hotels and restaurants, but we must see a place as any customer sees it. If you walk into a lobby at 11 am and it's a disaster and nobody has cleaned it, well, that's what the customer would see, too.' Because the guide has no advertising and makes money only from sales, it boasts complete independence. Just like any customer, an inspector reaches into his wallet and pays the full bill. 'That goes along with strict ethics and total honesty,' says Naegellen. 'We go to enormous pains to ensure accuracy.' It's the reputation for reliability and impartiality that make Guide Michelin listings so esteemed. The award of a star (maximum of three) to a restaurant is a matter of jubilation. 'In lodging and restaurants, we look for the obvious virtues: cleanliness, friendly and efficient service, maintenance and value for money,' he says. 'In restaurants, it is the quality of food, above all, that decides. Is it well cooked? Is it tasty? In an expensive restaurant, is it prepared with originality and flair?' In Hong Kong as part of an Asian visit to mark the centenary of the guide's publication, Naegellen blended easily into the background of international businessmen in local lobbies. That's one of the secrets of the corps of Michelin inspectors who make unannounced and anonymous visits to tens of thousands of hotels and restaurants every year. They are faceless men and women, trained experts all, who are indistinguishable from other hotel guests and diners. The family of guides today seeks to publish the same highly informative, honest and unprejudiced news that marked the 1900 edition, which was a simple travel aid put out by the French rubber and tyre company. The format remains recognisable, heavy on symbols that show what an establishment has to offer. There have been some changes, however. In 1900, one sign in the book was a candle in a candle-holder, signifying that a hotel did not enjoy the blessing of electricity. Today, symbols indicate the presence of Internet data ports in hotel rooms. Principles remain unchanged. The basis is secrecy and honesty. As car ownership expanded, so did the size and ambitions of the book. In 1926, to distinguish the best of the establishments listed, editors began awarding a star to outstanding restaurants. Now the three-stars classification to a restaurant is the highest accolade in the culinary world. Like many of the corps of inspectors, Naegellen began life in the hospitality world. He studied at the hotel school in Strasbourg, in his native Alsace, and worked in hotels in Paris and Germany. After nine years as a hotelier, a friend mentioned that Guide Michelin was recruiting. The specifications were for trained experts who knew and loved food. He passed the stringent tests that started on a five-month training course. The same strict rules apply today. Just a listing in the guide is a huge bouquet. Naegellen explains that they never say anything bad about an establishment. If it's not up to scratch, it doesn't go in the book. He hastens to add that many very competent hotels and restaurants are not in the book simply because listings are restricted to keep it a manageable size. But what is included has the Michelin stamp of approval. It's a ceaseless quest. The army of inspectors munches its way around Europe. How many there are is kept secret. Often, it will be a man in a business suit dining alone. Other times, it could be a courting couple; but the diners are paying attention to the decor and the presentation of food, not to each other. Hotels are ranked by little house signs, up to five of them for a prime establishment. 'The rankings are not a matter for discussion or negotiation. That's totally our decision. We make it alone. The hotel is not consulted.' What does he think of Hong Kong's hotels? Well, he is staying in the Mandarin and we have had lunch in a private room at the Conrad. 'They are as good as five-star international hotels anywhere,' he says, but that's his own opinion, not an official Michelin rating.