How restaurants get Michelin stars
The 2008 Michelin Guide appeared on January 25, which for food-lovers means one thing: the award of Michelin stars. Time Out‘s Guy Dimond talks to Jean-Luc Naret and Derek Bulmer (head of Michelin Guides Worldwide and head of Michelin Guides UK respectively) about the restaurant guides, the internet and how their inspectors stay anonymous
GDNow, when people want to find a restaurant, the first thing they’ll do is look it up online to see what reviews they can find, or what the blogs and user reviews say. Both Michelin and Time Out inspect anonymously and regularly, but are other sites reliable too?
J-L NThe credibility of the name is important, because the more information is going to be free, the more people are going to look for the brand value. You manage with Time Out and we manage with Michelin to get the value across.
GDThe smart thing to do if you have the resources is to have a website with the information on it, and try to maintain it up to date.
J-L NWe’ve been looking at the same thing for Michelin, trying to make sure that we keep on top of the process, but then you are losing the fight of having a selection. What’s important for the chef and what is important for the readers is to be included in the guide, and to know what is the award they’re going to get, and if you do an online selection you’re just losing the momentum of what you’re doing today, which is announcing the stars and making a new selection.
GDSomething very specific I wanted to ask you: you’re in a very unusual position. Do you do inspections yourself now or not so much?
J-L NI go and eat in all these restaurants. I don’t write reports though.
GDI can’t think of anyone else in that position who eats in London, New York, Tokyo, Paris. You must have a very clear idea on the difference between the cities in a way that I can only have in a very superficial way from visiting Paris twice a year. What do you think are the differences specifically between Paris, New York and London?
J-L NWell, the main difference would be the diversity. The diversity of food doesn’t exist in France, and in Paris our selection obviously it’s on the level of quality, so 99 per cent of the restaurants in our Paris guide will be French. London and New York there are about fifty types of different cuisine, so it really is a diversity of culinary experience which is exactly the same in New York as it is in London. France is more about traditional French food.
GDI think in terms of world cities, I can’t think of anywhere more comparable to London than New York, because it’s not an English city it’s an international city in the same way that New York is. Which do you think is better? Do you think it’s New York still? Or is London catching up?
J-L NLondon and New York are really competing against each other in that regard. From the Michelin point of view, 526 restaurants this year in New York with 39 stars. Here you have 428 restaurants with 43 stars, so the winner is London.
GDThat’s judging from the criterion of Michelin stars, and a particular type of haute cuisine restaurant, but for people who are wanting more like pub-style food or fast food, sandwiches, are people better off in London or Paris or somewhere else?
J-L NThe main difference would be London would more expensive and when you’re looking at the prices here, we put some restaurants in the guide that are good value for money – and inspectors go with their own packet of money. In London we have had to raise the bar to £28 to find enough addresses to make it worthwhile.
DBThat limit varies from country to country depending on cost. So that’s a reflection of reality I’m afraid. London is probably the most expensive capital city that we do a guide in.
GDHow is the Michelin pubs and bars guide going?
DBVery well – we’ve really caught the mood of the moment by bringing it out because you know what’s been happening to pubs and bars up and down the country for the last 15 years now but it has accelerated over the past five or ten. That’s the real big development that’s going on, outside the cities all the restaurants tend to be in pubs and it shows at the moment no sign of slowing down we’re having no problem finding new batch for the new guide every year.
GDAre they restaurants disguised as pubs?
DBA lot of them are – there’s a complete spectrum, as you would expect. Some of them really are still pubs serving a bit of food, some of them have essentially become restaurants but if you can’t go in there and order a pint of beer over the bar, it’s not a pub. There’s got to be a bottom line on what is a pub by definition. If you can’t go in there without the obligation to eat, then it’s become a restaurant.
GDSay you’ve got half a dozen inspectors working in the UK, how do they maintain anonymity if they’re making inspections? You know, when they see the kitchen after they’ve been eating in the restaurant – surely they remember that person next time?
J-L NIt takes an inspector something like eight or nine years in the job before they would have rotated all the way around the British Isles, and each time they’re in a new area. If someone remembers them after eight or nine years, then good luck to them. It’s unlikely. Of course it’s a problem that we all guard against.
GDDo the inspectors eat alone?
DBSome of the time, and some of the time they pair up as well. Particularly the London gang, they tend to eat in pairs where you won’t be spotted anything like as much. We’ve got women on the team as well, so when they go out as couples, they look like couples – they’re not spotted. When they travel around the country, they are often on their own then. For the important meals, for a star restaurant, it’s always two.
GDSomething that Michelin has been accused of, I think more in the past than of late, is the lack of openness in terms of how the stars are awarded. What are you looking for?
J-L NPart of the Michelin story is the secrecy about what we do – there’ s always a secret. We’re not trying to be secret; we’re just trying to keep an air of mystery about what we do. But the stars are really about the standard of the food. You have different types of food, some are very classical, some not, so it’s really interesting. Whatever your style, this is what we’re going to look for. We’re not here to set the trend for what the gastronomy of tomorrow will be – we’re just here to reveal how things are today.
GDMy fear with any restaurant guidebook is that you’re essentially perpetuating a bourgeois system of eating. If it’s always about very fine dining, I think that middle range that most people are interested in is ignored…
DBMost of the Michelin guide is affordable. People always focus on the stars, but it’s only five per cent of the total book… but it’s the five percent that people want to talk about. People don’t want to talk about all the hundreds and hundreds of restaurants in there that are perfectly good places to go out and eat in.
J-L NThat’s why readers buy it – they don’t buy it for the stars, they buy it for its entire selection.