Amy Cortese

 

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March/April 2007

Our Very Best restaurants (According to the French, that is.)   The Michelin Guide, published by a French tire company since 1900 and for decades the European gourmet’s bible, has invaded America, with lots of controversy but surprisingly good results, writes Amy Cortese. New York, for instance, beats Rome.

By AMY CORTESE

On a February night in 2006, the Guggenheim Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was packed with some of the world’s greatest culinary talent. There was Alain Ducasse of Louis XV in Monte Carlo and the restaurant at the Hôtel Plaza-Athénée in Paris; Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges in New York and Prime in Las Vegas; Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, considered by many critics the best restaurant in America; and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque, who practically invented the modern luxury Manhattan dining room. Each had left his kitchen for the evening to celebrate, along with other gastronomes, the launch of the New York version of the venerable Michelin Guide—not the green one on sightseeing but the red one, treated in much of Europe with reverence, on restaurants.

In France, where food has always been an art and obsession, Le Guide Rouge, as it is known, is the Bible. Created in 1900 by a tire company as a means to encourage people to get into their cars and explore—at a time when there were only about 3,000 automobiles in all of France and a drive to Marseille from Paris could take several days—the free guide listed helpful locations such as gas stations, restrooms, hotels, and restaurants.

But it was not until a few decades later that the guide became serious about evaluating restaurants, using anonymous inspectors and applying a rating system with stars. Most restaurants received no stars at all; just an inclusion in the book was a seal of approval. One star signified a very good restaurant in its category, and two stars, a restaurant worth a detour. Three stars was a rating reserved for exceptional cuisine worth a special journey.

A century later, Michelin’s red books, in editions that cover 20 countries, are the leading guidebooks in Europe, selling 800,000 copies a year. Of 45,000 hotels and restaurants across Europe included in the guides, only 1,500 receive stars. A website meticulously maintained by food critic Andy Hayler (www.andyhayler.com) counts 60 three-star restaurants in the 2006 guides, up from just 20 in 1995 and only seven in 1951, when Michelin resumed publishing after World War II.

There is no higher accolade in the culinary world, nor one that so swiftly accrues to the bottom line. One restaurateur said his business rose 60 percent immediately after he was promoted from two stars to three. A Michelin blessing brings a steady stream of big-spending diners and has launched the global careers of many chefs.

With such honors also comes intense pressure to maintain one’s place in the Michelin firmament. Two three-star French chefs, Bernard Loiseau in 2003 and Alain Zick in 1966, were reportedly driven to suicide by the prospect of losing a star. Another chef, Émile Jung of Strasbourg, whose restaurant, Le Crocodile, was demoted from three stars to two in 2002, said, “No words can ease the pain that eats at our hearts and that has killed our spirit.” This stuff is serious.

Of the 60 three-stars, 26 are in France, and nine of those are in Paris, including such classics as Le Grand Véfour, still making Pigeon Prince Rainier in the Palais Royal gardens; Taillevent, a monument to understated perfection near the Arc de Triomphe; and L’Ambroisie, serving fricassee of Breton lobster with chestnuts and puree of pumpkin in a 17th-century townhouse on the Place des Vosges.

The other 34 three-star restaurants are scattered about parsimoniously—six in Italy, six in Germany, two in Switzerland, and so on. It was a surprise then—and a pleasant one—to find last year that four restaurants in New York had been awarded three stars in the first American Michelin dining guide: Alain Ducasse; Per Se, owned by chef Thomas Keller; Jean Georges; and Le Bernardin, a restaurant which, like Ducasse, has a Parisian pedigree. For 2007, Ducasse was dropped—temporarily, we assume—because the restaurant is moving into new quarters at the St. Regis Hotel. The other three kept their stars. Also this year, Michelin launched a San Francisco guide, the latest of what will be a series, with a new book issued each year (possible targets of subsequent guides include Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, and New Orleans).

The new San Francisco guide adds another three-star restaurant to the American celestial order—The French Laundry, which is actually in Yountville, 55 miles away in the wine country of the Napa Valley. Most of the European guides for 2007 had not been published as this article was being prepared, but, compared with tallies in 2006, the U.S., with only two cities covered, has more three-star restaurants than Britain or Belgium, and New York alone has more than Rome, Milan, Barcelona, or Madrid. San Francisco is tied with Lyon, long considered France’s most food-obsessed city.

Partly as a result, the U.S. guides are causing controversy. Food critic Mike Steinberger of Slate.com wrote, “Michelin had a choice to make: It could tell New Yorkers what they presumably wanted to hear—that, as upscale restaurants go, New York is now equal to Paris—or it could tell them the truth—that, fine as they are, New York’s finest tables haven’t yet reached those heights.” Steinberger said that Michelin, without total honesty, opted for the first choice. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people with extensive three-star experience making that case” that Per Se and Jean Georges are on the same level as Troisgros in Roanne or Arpège in Paris.

That may be heresy in New York, but even there, some wonder whether Michelin went too easy. Tony May, the owner of San Domenico, a fixture on the Italian dining scene, expressed disappointment with the New York guide (and his lack of a star). A native of Naples, he grew up reading the red guide, and believes Michelin has changed its criteria for the U.S. books—for instance, it awards stars to restaurants open less than a year. “They had an opportunity to rate restaurants on a European meter, not an American one,” he told me. “They should be Michelin, but they are not.”

Then, there were the errors. For example, Michael Bauer reported in The San Francisco Chronicle that the chef-owner of Aziza was grumbling that Michelin had said that “belly dancers shimmy” in his restaurant on weekends while, in fact, the place has been belly-dancer-less since 2003. The entry for La Folie says that Jamie Passot “greets guests at the entrance,” but, writes Bauer, she hasn’t been on the floor for 12 years.

Michelin’s expansion to the United States comes as it is struggling to maintain its relevance in a freewheeling global dining scene, where restaurants come and go with increasing frequency and the Internet is filled with amateur and professional commentary, much of it very good. Also, Michelin is running up against the outrageous success of the Zagat Survey, founded by two Yale-educated lawyers, Tim and Nina Zagat, in 1979. Their idea was to devise ratings from the opinions of thousands of diners rather than one reviewer.

Michelin, famous for its secrecy, has other problems. In 2004, one of its inspectors, Pascal Rémy, published a tell-all book that charged the guide wasn’t as scrupulous as it claimed. Although he lost a wrongful firing case in court, the charges stung. The following year, a guide for the Benelux region included a favorable review of a restaurant that hadn’t yet opened, causing Michelin to pull all copies and reprint the book.

Michelin is still tops in France, selling 415,000 copies a year, compared with 70,000 for its closest rival, GaultMillau, a powerhouse 30 years ago when it promoted nouvelle cuisine and gave high rankings (it uses the French school grading system, where 20 is tops) to excellent innovative restaurants that the more stodgy Michelin barely noticed. But even in its hometown of Paris today, Le Guide Rouge is considered a little musty. François Simon, the food and restaurant critic for Le Figaro, has likened it to “an old aunt who is hopelessly outdated yet gives her opinion about everything.”

Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant in New York and Sonoma, who also noted the factual mistakes in the U.S. guides, agrees with Simon. He calls Michelin “deeply anachronistic” and says that “it meets their own criteria for French businessmen in the 1960s.” It’s a legitimate criticism. Reliability, not imagination, has always been Michelin’s strength.

The Michelin guide operates the same way in the U.S. as in Europe, although Jean-Luc Naret, the director, has been working to demystify the traditionally secretive process. A team of inspectors anonymously visits restaurants at least once every 18 months, and as many as 12 times for the top-rated ones. “It’s like being in the witness protection program, only the food is better,” Naret jokes. The initial team in New York was European, although Michelin recruited American inspectors for the 2007 guide. The inspectors undergo intensive training and eat up to 260 “test meals” a year, for which they prepare reports. Later, the reports are compared, and the inspectors collectively decide on a restaurant’s ranking. Michelin has a reputation of adding restaurants to its starry universe slowly—and subtracting them slowly as well.

Despite this rigor and circumspection, Michelin’s ratings created an uproar in both New York and San Francisco. “It was immediately the talk of the town,” says Ken Frank, chef and owner of La Toque in California’s Napa Valley, who was thrilled to receive a star in the San Francisco Bay Area guide. “A lot of people were upset.” It was no surprise that Thomas Keller got three stars, but Chez Panisse in Berkeley, opened in 1971 by beloved culinary pioneer Alice Waters, got just one.

Chief among the gripes is that Michelin is biased toward French restaurants and chefs. Of the three restaurants to snag three stars in New York’s 2007 guide, two (Jean Georges and Le Bernardin, plus, of course, Ducasse, waiting in the wings for a comeback) have French chefs, and the third (Per Se) has a French-trained chef. Only slightly less controversial is that all four (including Ducasse) are on the West Side of Midtown Manhattan and three are in hotels (did the inspectors just roll out of bed?). Even among the four New York restaurants that received two stars, only one (Bouley) is downtown, which hip foodies believe is the white-hot center of local dining. Of the others, Masa is in the same building as Per Se, Daniel is on the Upper East Side, and Del Posto is in Chelsea.

Two out of the four New York restaurants to receive two stars are French (the exceptions are Masa, which is Japanese, and Del Posto, the latest Mario Batali–Joseph Bastianich Italian collaboration). The paucity of Italian restaurants was particularly glaring in a city that is wild for Italian cuisine. Batali’s Babbo, easily New York’s most popular Italian restaurant, received only one star. “I get the impression that French restaurants start off with the benefit of the doubt, and Italian restaurants have to prove themselves,” says Frank Bruni, restaurant critic for The New York Times.

Additionally, New Yorkers scratched their heads over some of the one-star choices. The Spotted Pig, a gastropub, albeit a popular one, was ranked on the same level as Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud, which, in Zagat, received a lofty 28 points out of 30 for the quality of its food. When asked about the coronation of The Spotted Pig and the lauding of a restaurant like Sripraphai, a Thai hole-in-the-wall in Queens, Wolf, the restaurant critic who complained about Michelin being stuffy, called such actions “Le Stunt,” a public-relations maneuver to get attention.

Naret says he expected controversy. The New York book, he says, is the most diverse the company has ever produced, comprising 45 cuisines. And he insists the charges of a French bias are simply untrue. Referring to Keller’s restaurant in California, he says: “Even if it were The Spanish Laundry we would have given it three stars.”

Still, Naret acknowledges that it will take some time to win trust and loyalty in the United States. The 2006 New York Michelin sold 110,000 copies—not bad for its first year, but a trickle compared to the 650,000 Zagat guides that New Yorkers buy each year. (Zagat is masterful at selling copies in bulk as, for example, favors at trade shows.) A survey by Star Chefs, an online magazine for kitchen professionals, found that in New York, only 10 percent of respondents said they use the 2006 Michelin guide often, compared to 75 percent who rely on Zagat. (Naret can take some consolation from the fact that his countrymen seem just as mystified by the Parisian Zagat; who cares, after all, what the masses think about a restaurant?)

Naret has made some changes to accommodate the U.S. market. The U.S. guides have much more descriptive text, and starred restaurants get a two-page spread with photos. Hotels get short shrift in favor of neighborhood maps and histories.

If the red guide has yet to catch on with U.S. consumers, it remains the choice for millions of Europeans—who, armed with a strong euro, are an increasingly important constituency for U.S. restaurants. There were seven million international visitors to New York last year. Margaret Zakarian, wife and partner of Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef-owner of Country, a one-star restaurant serving “New American” food in Manhattan, says, “We’ve definitely seen an increase in bookings from abroad.”

In an era with so many choices, it’s no surprise that consumers will look to trusted sources for judgments on where they should spend their money and time. And, speaking of time, Michelin, a company founded in gritty Clermont-Ferrand in 1889 that has grown into the largest tire maker in the world, has a long-term perspective. If the U.S. guides have some problems now, Michelin will eventually fix them. Despite the carping, for chefs there is still no higher honor than receiving a Michelin star or two or three. “Michelin is the world standard,” says Ken Frank of La Toque. “It delivers to your restaurant very sophisticated travelers.” Vive le Guide!

 

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