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The Michelin Guide comes to New York City

On November 4th, five hundred New York City restaurant owners will open the soft cover of the New York City Michelin Red Guide - the first one ever published outside Europe - and breathe a collective sigh of relief to find their restaurant listed inside. A handful of restaurants will also find their listing elevated with “stars”. Most will be satisfied to simply be included in what will soon become one of the most important restaurant guides in New York City.

The Michelin Guide comes to New York City

New York City hosts six million foreign tourists a year, many of which are Europeans who grew up with this influential book tucked within their car’s glove box. While there is little doubt that the new Michelin Guide will have considerable impact on this vital source of restaurant income, what about the 35 million yearly domestic visitors to our city? Many of these visitors will certainly snatch up the soon-to-be-very visible Michelin Guide to assist them in their dining and hotel decisions. Does this mean that they will close their browsers and toss away their Zagat guides in favor of this 105-year-old new kid on the block? Perhaps not, but there is one fact that is indisputable about the Michelin Guide. Although it has had a few bumps along its historic road, it is still highly respected in Europe, and is generally regarded as the most honest and objective restaurant and hotel guide one can buy. But, that being said, will New Yorkers buy this new homegrown version of the Guide?

We spoke to the new Director of the Michelin Guide, Jean-Luc Naret, a charming 41 year-old whose “James Bond” looks seem a fitting match to the Guide’s fanatical obsession with secrecy. While his influence in producing New York’s restaurant and hotel guide is significant, restaurateurs shouldn’t bother making a copy of Mr. Naret’s photo and posting it in their kitchen next to that bootlegged picture of Frank Bruni. Michelin used anywhere from five to twenty inspectors here in New York to produce the guide’s results, so discovering the identity of one of their inspectors won’t have the same effect as recognizing one of the newspaper critics. As soon as an inspector is recognized in one area, he or she will be sent out to another area or country. Problem solved! Although there are a few restaurateurs who might wish the same fate upon certain local newspaper and magazine restaurant critics, their lack of unanimity puts them at a tremendous disadvantage to the “Michelin way” of rating restaurants.

While Mr. Naret couldn’t be coaxed into telling us which New York City restaurants would be getting “3 stars”, or even which ones would be listed, his interview did provide some remarkable insight into an organization whose mystery and intrigue might even impress James Bond’s boss, Ian Fleming’s character “M”. As we learn more about Michelin’s new commitment to expanding its Guide outside Europe, don’t be surprised to see more and more people walking New York’s streets clutching a copy of their familiar red guide, as they speak excitedly in diverse accents from faraway places such as France, Germany, Long Island, and Louisiana.

NYRI: How did you begin your tenure as director of the Michelin guide?
JN: They broke the rules two years ago by bringing in someone totally outside the company. Every director before me had started as an inspector, but I’m the first one who has taken the job in 105 years of their history who has not been an inspector. So what I did during the first 6 months was to spend my time discovering what a Michelin inspector was doing. I went all over Europe and followed each inspector trying to know them better and understanding how they were doing their job on a daily basis.

NYRI: Were any directives or goals given to you?
JN: The first objective given to me by the company was to move on to other countries other than Europe, because we’ve been strong in Europe for decades. Obviously one objective was to move to the United States, and the port of entry for the United States was definitely New York. We’re going to see how the guide is perceived, then we’ll move to a new city each year; San Francisco, Washington DC, and so forth. Then we’ll look at Asia and what the port of entry to Asia is. Is that going to be Tokyo? Is that going to be Shanghai? We’ll be moving the company in that direction as well.

NYRI: How did you approach the New York project; were you personally involved with it?
JN: Yes I was very involved. First of all I came here in May (2004) to really have a look at the city and see exactly what was happening here. Then we met with restaurateurs and chefs to try to see the value of having Michelin come here. Based on that we got the green light, and I brought in five inspectors from Europe. I selected them personally, based on my tour with them, so I could choose the ones with the most open eyes in order to be able to see the different kinds of restaurants and the different types of cuisine that you have in New York, because you have everything here. It’s very important for our people to know that we’re not a French company rating French restaurants; we’re an international company writing about international restaurants and hotels.

NYRI: What particular directives were given to these inspectors?
JN: The first thing we did was to assign them to different sectors, and we asked them to try to become a New Yorker in a very short period of time. At the same time we pre-selected about 1200 restaurants as we do when we move to any new country. The inspectors have lunch and dinner of course, but at the same time they need to familiarize themselves with the neighborhood and try to see what new things are happening there, what people do there, to really feel out the place. I was coming back every 2 or 3 weeks to see the results, and we held our first “star” meeting a few months later. This is where we look at all the reviews we’ve done and all the potential restaurants that we’re going to keep within our selection, and we then look at the potential for restaurants to have “stars”. Then we start the process where we send more inspectors back to those restaurants, because the “star” ratings are based on the fact that we go back there many times.

NYRI: So, if you expect a restaurant to receive “stars”, will your inspectors generally go back there more often to make sure it warrants the rating?
JN: We base the decision to go back on the experience of the inspectors who say, “yes this has potential, it needs to be followed”, or “no it’s very good in its category but it doesn’t need to be followed for stars”.

NYRI: What are the inspectors looking for in the food?
JN: They are looking at 5 different things:
1. The choice and quality of the ingredients
2. How the dish is cooked
3. How flavorful is the dish
4. The creativity of the chef
5. The most important one for us is consistency, not only on the signature dish – you can be very good on one dish and then not very good on the others – you need to be very good on everything you offer on the menu.

NYRI: Was there any pressure to make sure New York had a certain number of starred restaurants compared to other major cities?
JN: If we don’t find a restaurant to be a 3-star, we wouldn’t give it a 3-star just for the sake of it. When we published the new Austrian Michelin guide, we didn’t have any 3-star restaurants at all, and the press there was a bit tough. They said, “Come on, Michelin comes here and you couldn’t find any 3-star restaurants?” I took the most influential journalist aside and said “Listen, we came here and did thorough inspections, and based upon the Michelin “star” rating system we only found 2-star restaurants, we didn’t find any 3-star restaurants. Did we miss anything? Tell me if there’s any restaurant here, knowing the Michelin system, that you believe is really worth 3-stars.” He thought for a minute and finally said, “You’re right, there are only 2-star restaurants here.” A restaurant that is 1-star, 2-star, or 3-stars should be the same level in Paris as it is in Barcelona, London, or New York.

NYRI: Do you think that French cuisine might fare better in your guide than other cuisines?
JN: I don’t think the selection of French restaurants will be on top of the list. Maybe 20 or so years ago, if Michelin came here then, they might have been because most of the restaurants here at that time were French. But they’re not there anymore and the ones that are there, maybe they’re not worth being in the guide as well. It’s going to be very interesting to see what sort of selection we have. We will cover all nationalities as well, which means we’re talking about Korean, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and everything else. I think that the selection, when we’re done, will be very relevant to New York.

NYRI: How important is the kitchen inspection to the overall rating of the restaurant?
JN: It’s always interesting to go into the kitchen without being announced, to see how the staff are working, how the meat is stored in the fridge, and what sort of products they are using. It is also an opportunity to have a discussion with the chef that you could not have in the same way if you were a guest. You can go to restaurants at the end of the service, and there’s nothing in the fridge because everything has been ordered for that day, which is a good thing. But we also want to preserve the unanimity, and that’s the reason we will never have any inspectors doing interviews or being recognized. The inspector we selected from America, everyone is saying, “oh we know who that person is.” We’re not going to take people known in the industry to be a Michelin inspector. We’re looking for someone to do the job in a totally anonymous way. It’s a little like a witness protection program except the food is much better. Sometimes based on the inspection itself we can decide not to include the restaurant.

NYRI: How will the format of the New York Michelin guide be different from the European guides, if at all?
JN: The format is definitely part of the Michelin collection. It will be red and the same type of cover, but the inside will be totally different from what we have in Europe because there we have only two lines of text. In New York we’re only talking 500 restaurants and 50 hotels, so we’ll have an introduction to the neighborhood, and then we’ll have two restaurants per page and some long text about the experience. We’re actually going to tell the story behind each restaurant and why you need to go there, and what to look for. For the starred restaurants, we will also have a photo. The symbols will be the same as we have in Europe. We’ll have the little fork, which from 1 to 5 is about the ambiance, the service, and the style of the restaurant. The “stars” are mostly about what is on the plate.

NYRI: Are you concerned that some people might assume that today’s New York Times “4 star” restaurants should automatically be rated as Michelin “3 star” restaurants?
JN: There might be some disappointment, because I think the people from the New York Times may not be looking at the same things we are looking at. Once we were done with our selections, just for a matter of comparison, I looked at our ratings, the Zagat ratings, and the ratings of the New York Times. There were some restaurants where we found some very surprising food that had never been reviewed by any of those yet, but I’m sure they will be. There are some others that they raved about and gave stars, which might be different from our selection because our experience was different.

NYRI: How does one become a Michelin inspector?
JN: People usually come to us after being in the industry for 5 or 10 years. We try not to take them fresh out of school, because we believe they need to have their own experience in terms of being in the restaurant or hotel business. When they join us they go through a very in-depth training for six months, and after that they start going to different countries with other inspectors in order to get different experiences. We really believe that it takes 2 years before an inspector can be trusted in terms of his work. In Europe they do about 130-150 room nights in hotels, and they will do between 240 and 260 dinners and lunches where they do inspections. It’s a tough job. You are not always going to the best restaurants. You have to go to all of them in order to make a selection of the best, so sometimes you have an upset stomach as well!

NYRI: That’s a lot of fine dining! Do you pay attention to the health of your inspectors?
JN: We follow the cholesterol level very carefully with our inspectors. In their first year they will gain 10-20 pounds, but then they will start to regulate themselves and go back to their original weight. During a recent meeting of all the inspectors I asked them all their weight in a questionnaire in order to get an average, and it was 80 kilos (176 pounds). You’ve got some skinny guys, and you’ve got some very big guys. We have some beautiful women as well who you’d never realize were Michelin inspectors, who work as carefully as the others to not be recognized.

NYRI: How do they record their observations while they are in the restaurant?
JN: When you go into a 3-star restaurant, they do not go there alone with a little notebook. They will be there totally incognito, usually with a companion. Sometimes they use tape recorders, cell phones, or mini cameras. Some of them go to the toilet a couple of times because they need to write something down. They need to write down a full description of every single thing they had. It’s a very concise report, which takes them between one-half and two hours to complete.

NYRI: Should New York’s newer and lesser-known restaurants expect to see an increase in their business because of their inclusion in the guide?
JN: I think it will be a good opportunity for some of the new restaurants to be recognized. For the others, they will see a different clientele coming to them as well. In Europe, a 1-star restaurant will bring about 25-30% more business to them, a 2-star rating will bring another 30% to them, and a 3-star rating will bring another 30%, but it will bring a worldwide clientele. Here in New York, they will not see that kind of increase because they are already full and many of them are running at a very high occupancy already. But with a “star” rating, they might see a more international clientele.

NYRI: Can a restaurant request to be reviewed?
JN: Of course. In Europe, it’s a tradition. The first thing you do is you go to the bank and get your money, then you go to see your architect to design the restaurant, then you actually purchase your equipment. You then write to the Michelin guide to say you’re going to be open soon, and you send us an announcement. Already in New York we are receiving a lot of letters, some asking that they would like to be visited.

NYRI: Overall, do you think that the Michelin guide will be a success in New York?
JN: If you ask me is this the right timing, I’d say yes. Do we believe that we’ve done everything possible for Michelin to make the best selections, I would say yes. Do we believe that New Yorkers will be happy with the selection we’ve done? Because it’s honest I would say yes. Everything we’ve done is with honesty and integrity. But we don’t come here with any sort of French arrogance saying we’re going to tell you where to go for dinner. We come here to offer our 105 years of expertise, and based on our experience and our recognition worldwide, this is the selection we believe in. We’ll listen to the feedback and the comments to make sure that we improve year after year. We never do anything on a short term; Michelin always works on long-term projects. This is the first stone of a very huge building we want to start in the States.





           

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