It doesn't really hit you that the same people who make the Michelin Guides — perhaps the most prestigious restaurant guides in the world — also make Michelin tires until you call the corporate headquarters and get put on hold. Waiting for Jean-Luc Naret, the dashing director of the Michelin Guide, some overly cheery female automaton repeatedly thanked me for calling and admonished me to regularly check my tire pressure for my safety and the safety of others. Then Jean-Luc Naret came on the line. He was patched through from Germany where he was attending "star" meetings. The week before he had been in Tokyo and the week before in New York, deciding the starry fates of New York (Oct. 5), San Francisco (end of October) and, for the first time, Chicago (Nov. 17).
Do you anticipate the Chicago guide to give rise to widespread furor?
Every time we go to a new city, there is a lot of anticipation. When the guides come out some people are really happy because we are revealing the talents which they had known all along, and you have some others who are not happy because we did not have the same meal that other newspaper critics had. Obviously there is a little controversy, but when we come to a new city, we come with fresh eyes. We're not looking at the name on the door. We're not looking at the name of the chef. We are looking for what is on the plate. Every time we come to a new city that is what we do. The only difference is that we have an international benchmark. We anticipate a Michelin star in Paris should be the same level as one in Tokyo or in Chicago.
So it's the same team of inspectors who are doing the stars around the world?
What is interesting is when we decided to move to Chicago two years ago, I already had people on my team who were from Chicago and decided to move to New York when we first published our New York guide. Some of my people on the team anticipated that we were going to go to Chicago so they already lived in Chicago. But altogether we have a team of ten inspectors in the United States. But it is irrelevant where exactly they live, because though I want them to know Chicago, I want them to know Chicago in the context of San Francisco and New York.
Something Graham Elliot told me about Chicago is that because it is more affordable to run a restaurant there than in New York, chefs can really explore more, they don't have to be so obsessed with the bottom line. He said, "I don't have to put a salmon on the menu if I don't want to." As Chicago is the one of the more affordable cities Michelin has visited, what's your take on the idea of Chicago being more experimental and less market-driven?
I absolutely agree with him. The difference between Chicago and New York is that in New York if a restaurant is not successful, it will be turned into a new concept or into a dry cleaning place in a short period of time. The pressure is on in New York because of rent and competition. In Chicago, the rent isn't as expensive and the chefs are very laid back. There is one restaurant that I will not give a name to, but it is in the selection and every time the door to the kitchen opens, the smell is?interesting. You don't know if they are actually smoking [a fat bong or blunt] or not. There's loud music on the stereo but they're very focused on making sure the food they do is excellent. That's what makes a very big difference in New York.
Does that affect the quality of the food? At least from a free market perspective, it seems that all the competition in New York would lead to better food as opposed to Chicago?
I think that's true. In Chicago they try things even if they don't work but they are more creative. Look at Grant [Achatz]. He has given chefs a new way of running their kitchens. Now there are what I call more "El Bulli-style" restaurants in Chicago than anywhere else in the world. Some are successful and some aren't, but because the bottom line is softer, they say, "Why not?"
The culinary worlds of San Francisco, NYC, Chicago, Tokyo, Paris are distinct in terms of what dining experience a diner is looking for. A diner at Momofuku might be looking for something completely different than, say, a diner at The French Laundry in Yountville. Is regional variation something you take into account or are you using an external benchmark?
As far as the Michelin stars are concerned, we're using the same benchmark internationally in terms of the food. But if you really look at our selection you'll see that a chef at a restaurant in Japan offers a more distinctive type of food in his restaurant because he will adapt to the customer. We take that into account. We take into account that in San Francisco people will go more for the respect of produce. In New York, people will go more for the ambiance and whether the restaurant is brand-new or, alternatively, it is very classical and has been there for a long time. In Chicago, it's based on the reputation of the chef. We take that all into account but at the end of the day when we make our selection, we're trying find the best food available in the city. If you come to Chicago, here are the best 350 restaurants in the city. Some of them will receive Michelin stars because on an international level they deserve to be recognized as such. These are not only the fifty or sixty best restaurants in the city but the best the United States and, for a few, among the best in the world.
So it isn't on a grading curve.
No not at all. Look at Los Angeles or Austria. We've published a guide in Austria for five years, but we couldn't actually find any three-star restaurants so we didn't create a three-star in order to sell more books. It was the same in LA. We said we were going to LA and there were a lot of articles that said Michelin will never find a three-star. And they were right. We didn't create one. We obviously felt there were some very good restaurants in the city but they rise only to the two-star level.
Also that must affect how well the guide does in that city.
It's a strength and weakness of having an international ranking system. We don't say, "This is the best restaurant in New York." We say, "This is among the best restaurants in the world." The first time we went to New York, Daniel didn't get three stars because it wasn't consistent enough for us. I could go there and have a great meal. But inspectors could go there and not get a three-star restaurant. The point of giving three stars to a chef is not the legion d'honneur. We recommend to our readers that they can go and get the same treatment as our inspectors.
Obviously you prize anonymity above all. Except, of course, yours.
It is an obsessive thing for us, anonymity. We're here to reveal the talents of chefs but you can only reveal the true talent of a chef when you are not known. Of course I get the soigné treatment wherever I go but I always say, "I am not a Michelin inspector so don't try to impress me because you might have in that same room that night, Michelin inspectors doing their own jobs."
Is that a trick you pull?
I do that sometimes. There's nothing worse than when you sit in a restaurant and you're not given any attention. That happens to inspectors, too. They'll be having a wonderful meal and all of a sudden everything changes. They ask the waiter, "What's going on?" and he says, "Oh, we just recognized the guy over there, we believe he is the New York Times reviewer." Okay, good! Take care of him, not me. It's something that is the worst experience in a restaurant that you could have. So this is why we focus so strongly on the anonymity of the inspectors. We call them famously anonymous.
Criticism has gotten increasingly democratic on one level but on the level of newspaper critics, so many of the major ones are easily recognizable.
There are a lot of different techniques. One of them is the famous restaurant critic who wants to be anonymous even though sometimes he isn't but you keep on reading his review every Wednesday. You follow their advice because you have the same taste, but it is really his own opinion based on his own experience. It's the same thing when you follow a theater critic or an art critic.
Except in performance and art, the play or the painting isn't altered for each theater or gallery goer. The same isn't true in restaurants.
It can be altered, everyone could have a different experience. On the other side, you have the democratic voice, people expressing themselves on blogs, which is great. We try somewhere between the middle called the authority. It's not just one opinion. It's different inspectors, people who actually go to these restaurants multiple times during the course of the year, who are not recognizable who actually pay their own bill and at the end of the year they make their report. That's what I'm doing right now. I'm sitting in a star meeting in Germany and we're reviewing every restaurant in Germany. We're having some great discussions. An inspector could go to restaurant, file a report and give the restaurant two stars. Another inspector would say, I'm sorry, I went three months after you and to me it was not a two-star.
Do the discussions get heated?
Absolutely. I left the room to take your call but we were in the middle of a very big discussion. But consistency is one of the most incredible and difficult tasks to achieve. When you go see an Oscar Award-winning actor in a movie, you know the performance will be as good as when he won the award. When you to the theatre — what we call Molière — you're just hoping he is as good. It's the same with chefs.
Has there ever been fist fights over stars?
Oh yes, we've had quite a few in different parts of the world. But at the end of the day, we only make a decision based on consensus.
What do you do if an inspector's anonymity has been compromised? Do you take him out to a field somewhere?
Well, we do it a little differently in Europe. Inspectors are assigned an area to travel for a year. At the end of the year they must move on, but before they do, they have to introduce themselves to each of the restaurants where they've been dining alone for the past year. These people will never go back to the restaurants for the next seven years. It's sort of like the Witness Protection Program but of course the food is much better.
I feel like you've used that line before.
Yes, I did.