A Few Words With The Michelin Man

Jean-Luc Naret is the worldwide Director of Le Guide Michelin-truly the only go-to guide when it comes to rating restaurants. We caught up with him in San Francisco for a Q&A about Michelin’s quest for world restaurant guidebook domination:

John Curtas: In this time of instant gratification, text messaging and food bloggers, how does the Michelin Guide compete for the attention of the restaurant-going public?

Jean-Luc Naret: The more people paying attention to food and restaurants the better. It’s all good for gastronomy. We think that they will always end up coming to our guide because we hope we are thought of as the final word in restaurant ratings, and we certainly feel that we have the respect of the best chefs from around the world.

JC: How do you feel about other rating systems like Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 Restaurants in the World or Steve Plotnicki’s The 100 Best Restaurants of North America and Europe (full disclosure: I am one of the voters for Restaurant Magazine’s yearly survey)? Do you take them seriously or think of them as publicity stunts?

JLN: Everyone has the right to judge these things and do their own list. I read with a lot of respect all these magazines including the Top 50 Restaurants in the World. This year (in France) we asked food writers/critics to tell us who deserves three-stars among French restaurants, because it looks like Michelin is becoming the international reference for gastronomy. We see and hear (writers) saying “we don’t believe (a restaurant is) worth three stars” and mentioning certain restaurants, and then we have chefs who tell us that those journalists haven’t been in their restaurant in 5 or 7 years and sometimes never.

JC: Just like El Bulli winning the top restaurant three years in a row even when it’s only open 6 months a year and reservations are practically impossible?

JLN: I used to run a hotel that got mentioned as one of the top 50 hotels in the world, and the next year a hotel in Bali with only 5 bungalows got the award as the best in the world. How many people could ever even see it, much less stay there? People just hear it’s good and then vote for it. Another example is when JoJo (in New York) lost a Michelin star a couple of years ago. They called us and wanted to know how they could improve. The next year, they regained that star after our inspectors went back 6 times (anonymously). When Frank Bruni reviewed it in the New York Times, he was surprised that they had regained a star, and mentioned that he had last been there 5 years earlier. Our stars are awarded based upon what we find there, after multiple visits, every single year.

JC: Speaking of inspectors, how many do you employ in America?

JLN: 10 full time inspectors covering New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

JC: And speaking of Los Angeles, how would you compare the way you were treated by the press in Tokyo (where Michelin awarded 8 restaurants the coveted three stars) versus LA (where non were found)?

JLN: They really are two different worlds. When we first started in Los Angeles, everyone was saying we weren’t going to find any 3-star restaurants. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone so we looked but couldn’t find one…so when we published we didn’t get a very nice reception from the local LA media. But there are really no 3 star restaurants there even today.

JC: Things were different in Tokyo?

JLN: In Tokyo, people were enthusiastic even before the launch. We published our guide at midnight, and by the next day they were all sold out (120,000 copies). With 150 starred restaurants we really put Tokyo on the map of the world’s gastronomy.

JC: Why and how did Tokyo leap ahead of so many of the world’s cities?

JLN: There are over 150,000 restaurants in Tokyo. Paris only has 13,000. Passion for food is very evolved. Their gastronomic traditions date from 17th century when restaurants started in Kyoto and then moved to Tokyo. They use the best products from the mountains and the sea and change everything every month to get the best products. Some chefs have unique access to products that no one else has. The 3 star restaurants run from Joel Robuchon to an underground sushi bar with only 10 seats that is the best sushi restaurant in the world.

JC: What do you foresee for fine dining in this economic downturn?

JLN: The rich seem to always be getting richer, so there will always be a place for the best, high-end restaurants. The trend in Europe is now to find small, modest places with great chefs cooking with lots of local products. Places that feature a high level of cooking at a fair price. These are the places that will do well.

JC: And what do you see happening in Vegas?

JLN: Las Vegas has been about having a well-known name on the door, but that means nothing to us. In fact some of the Las Vegas restaurants like Le Cirque, received a star when their better-known original restaurants did not. To us it’s not based upon a famous name. All that matters is who’s actually cooking there and what’s on the plate. And by the way, I just visited Macau and I can definitely say that I now appreciate the original Las Vegas even more.