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Michelin's International Director Michael Ellis on Criticism, the 2013 Guide, and Future Cities

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michelin-director-interview-2012.jpgMichelin's Michael Ellis [Photo: Gabe Ulla/Eater]

Michael Ellis has what might simultaneously be one of the most enviable and unenviable jobs in the world of food: he's the new director of Michelin. It's the oldest and most widely known restaurant guide in the world and, as part of his job, Ellis has to manage a staff of full-time inspectors (number unspecified, still) that rate restaurants in some of the most vibrant food cities in the world. He gets to do things like eat at all 25 three-star restaurants in France. At the same time, he comes to the Guide at a time when criticisms of its relevance, accuracy, and quality have never been more acute. In a recent Vanity Fair article, for example, the critic A.A. Gill wrote, among many other things, that Michelin was "wholly out of touch" and rewarded "fat, conservative, fussy rooms that use expensive ingredients with ingratiating pomp to serve glossy plutocrats and their speechless rental dates."

Ellis doesn't see it that way and has plans to build on what he feels is the best restaurant guide he's ever come across. Yesterday, while in town to promote the recently announced 2013 edition for New York, Ellis sat down in a windowless conference room at the Sheraton on Canal Street to explain what he has in mind.

I'm sure you're aware of the criticisms that get leveled at Michelin, especially in this city.
The laundry list is long.
Let me preface everything by saying that I joined in January, I'm responsible for all the editorial activity in Europe, Japan, and the U.S., but I'm not an inspector and I don't necessarily have encyclopedic knowledge of every single one of the 900 restaurants in the New York City.

Okay, so let's start with the general criticism that it doesn't give you a picture of what dining in New York today is and work from there.
Well, I mean, New York is such a dynamic, huge place that it's very difficult to have an accurate picture of what it is to dine there today. There seem to constantly be thousands of restaurants opening and closing and morphing. To have a comprehensive picture of dining in New York is not possible. What we bring to the table are inspectors that have a tried and true method of judging restaurants based on the quality of the ingredients, mastery of cooking techniques, the harmony and equilibrium of the food, and the personality of the chef. We have not changed that format since we started.

Everyone focuses on the stars, but you'll notice that only 66 of the 900 in the guide are starred restaurants. I think we cover better than anybody the scene, but some people might have differing opinions.

So you're trying to emphasize the Bib Gourmands?
I would just say that we want to give a selection that is for everybody. You can go for a three-star Michelin experience or a Pueblo-style taco with the family.

But most people pay more attention to the stars.
That's certainly the most glamorous part of what we do, just by their nature. They're the summit of achievement for those that think that the stars matter, but the message I try to get across is that it's just a small part of what we do.

Let's backtrack for a moment and talk about your background. What did you do before this job?
I joined Michelin about six years ago on the tire side of things. I was previously the vice president of sales and marketing for the motorcycle. But I became a foodie many years ago. I grew up in Denver but I still remember the first bistro meal I had in Paris, at a place in Montmartre. I probably had the tourist menu, but I still remember everything I had — mussels, veal Normandy, and crème caramel. I subsequently trained to be a chef in Paris, but I learned that I wasn't cut out for that but remained very interested in food. I've lived in France for 24 years now.

This is much more of a management role. I have a big staff around the world, just like I did in the tire division, and it's important to use Michelin principles and maintain Michelin culture. We make great efforts to make sure employees are treated properly.

How would you characterize your vision in comparison to your predecessor?
Jean-Luc Naret launched the guides outside of Europe, and that's something that I want to continue working on. I really want to expand into more cities in the U.S.

What cities are you looking at?
We're looking at that now, but I'm considering places like DC, Miami, Atlanta. We used to have Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

I was going to ask you about L.A. and Vegas. You are reconsidering those?
Absolutely. Those are certainly on the drawing board. Seattle and Houston and Dallas are others, but we're thinking about it. Would it be exactly as in New York, with 900 restaurants in each? I'm not exactly sure.

One thing I noticed is the discrepancy — you may not characterize it that way — between the number of new one stars in New York and the number in Italy. There were 33 new one stars for Italy this year, and about 9 in New York.
That's a good question. It's not an easy task. We move our inspectors around a bit. We like to bring French and Japanese inspectors to New York, for example, or U.S. inspectors to France and Italy, and so on. It's important that we do that so that a star in one country is equal to a star in another. In Italy you might have a case where we find lots of new one stars — new restaurants, chef changes — so things like that happen. And we don't have unlimited resources and inspectors.

It might simply be a matter of — we use tons of local information and have local sources to keep on top of things. We cast a wide net and talk to restaurateurs, concierges, and read the local press. It could seem like an anomaly, but that's due to the luck of the draw. And New York presents a particular challenge, because it's so dynamic. Not a lot of cities can maintain that in this economy.

You talk about a tried and true formula and your inspectors, but how do you feel about accusations that Michelin is too secretive or that there aren't enough people on staff?
It's a tried and true formula. I'd love to have twice the number of inspectors that I do now.

Will you ever say how many inspectors you have?
No, that's a trade secret. What I can tell you is that we move them around a lot and we are comfortable with the — we're not everywhere, sure. Are there restaurants that we miss? Yes. We're far from perfect. It's very important to listen to our readers, too, since they write us. We are open to something leading us to a Malaysian barbecue joint in Brooklyn. I think that we're able to produce a guide that reflects as best as we can the restaurants that appeal to our readership.

Has every restaurant in the guide been visited in the year leading up to the new edition?
Yes. As a general rule, yes. There can be exceptions. When there are changes in the stars, the restaurants are visited multiple times, for sure.

So it's possible that one might appear that isn't visited?
It is possible. I can't be categoric in saying all 900 restaurants were visited. It might be once every two years for places without a star. This is not a science, it's more of an art. I do think we're the best I've found, personally.

But all starred restaurants get a visit, without question?
Absolutely. More than once. And several more times than that when there's a change. It's a small part of our activity, but it's a visible part of our activity. It can be a huge blow to our credibility if a place changes and our rating doesn't reflect that. We'll bring in a French inspector to look at a French restaurant and compare it to those in France, for instance.

More on the tried and true formula. The methodology generally might not be changing, but would you say that you're trying to adapt to a changing dining culture?
Oh, sure. Look at the Chef's Table in Brooklyn. That's not a traditional dining experience. There's been a certain misnomer that we don't focus mainly on the food. We're trying to be on top of the changes that are happening now. You're seeing great ethnic food and lots of Korean and Chinese starred restaurants. We try to keep our finger on the pulse. Indian restaurants are getting stars. Nothing is off the table.

You'd then say that the haute French bias isn't there?
That was the case maybe twenty or thirty years ago. Like everyone else, we've been affected by slowing paper sales, but back then we were in the 800-pound gorilla and selling millions of guides in France. But people still hold it in high regard. It is what it is and hasn't changed — we haven't changed our methodology. In France, maybe not with the youngest generation, but most people still rely on it.

I think if you read the criticisms that are leveled against us, including those that we are old-fashioned, you'll take them apart and find that they are not factual. They're maybe perceptions that date back thirty years.

But why not be more open and transparent? It seems that most of the information people get on the process comes in the form of exposés or rumors.
One of the key elements to our inspectors is their anonymity. They are full-time employees. They eat lunch and dinner five days a week, which sounds like fun, unless you have to do it. And they are often away from home. People love to do it, but it's a very special job. They are all food professionals and have a deep knowledge of the industry and craft.

But the anonymity is essential. You aren't going to get the same service if you are unanonymous. Today, even the food critics for the New York Times go to great lengths but do get spotted. If the chef knows that Sam Sifton is in the dining room, he might get a better cut of meat or fish or the cooking will be different. I'm the public face of the guides, so when I go to a restaurant, I'm sure that I am treated differently than the average customer.

You don't think they get spotted?
They do not. They move around too much.

I've heard some stories about the single diner that drops his silverware a few times throughout the course of the meal to see if it'll get picked up...
Oh, really! I think that's an urban legend, since they go to great lengths to keep anonymous. They pride themselves on that, and if they're outed, it can be very problematic because then you have to move them around more.

Let's talk a bit more about your plans and vision.
I don't plan on making any modifications on the mechanics or methodology. I don't see that changing. I just want to keep widening the net, looking at Peruvian restaurants in Queens and Ecuadorian restaurants in the Bronx. We want to come up with new things. Our holy grail is to find restaurants no one has ever heard of and put them on the map. We have been criticized for giving places a star and then having the clientele change, but that's part of the deal.

I will say that I am open to talking to chefs about the stars, and regularly.

You're open to taking calls from chefs that want to move up in the ranks and things like that?
Absolutely. I can't speak for our head inspector in New York, but in Europe I do meet with as many people as I can — I can't meet with everybody — to hear about changes and get updates on restaurants. When I do meet the starred chefs, the visible part of our guidebook, I have yet to meet a chef who says he has too many stars or says he doesn't want a star. It's usually the other way around. I can't share anecdotes, but we'll tell a chef — after consulting the really detailed reports the inspectors file each time — that there has been a dip and that they may want to look out for particular things. Sometimes, at least in Paris, we'll have chefs come to us and ask how they're doing. We'll be honest with them. Most of the time, they'll thank us and tighten up. I live in France, but there I feel like chefs really appreciate having us there.

The consequences of suppression of a star or taking them away are huge, and we understand that. I want to make sure that what we are doing is objective and factual. Taking one away is a very, very careful process. But if we didn't take stars away when necessary, we'd not be credible. The fact is, restaurants can fluctuate for multiple reasons. We have to be vigilant and people have to be able to rely on us.

Since we've talked a lot about perception today, I'll finish by asking you how much you worry about it, or whether it's the case that you take note and keep doing your thing, knowing that Michelin is Michelin and that, as you say, it's a "dynamic" time for dining?
That's a good point. We can't rest on our laurels. The basic core values of how the inspectors do their job — I don't plan on tinkering with that. I think what we need to do is thinking about casting our nets wider and picking up on new, interesting things that are happening. I'm not worried about all the opinions out there — there's a whole industry out there of making fake opinions — but we need to know the players in new trends and we need to work to be quicker than everybody else. And we need to go into more cities in the U.S. and in Asia. There are interesting things happening in Singapore, in Bangkok, also in Brazil.

Since you bring it up, Tokyo and Japan have a staggering amount of stars compared to other regions. Is it just that it's a better area for dining?
The Guide is Japan-centric, there's no doubt about it. The French rag on me for it. In Japan, there's double the population and fifty times the restaurants. It's an eye-opener. You have to really see it to believe it.

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