ES Chats with the Michelin Man
Wednesday morning was the equivalent of Oscar nominations day for New York City chefs of a certain caliber, who woke up and found out whether they had won or lost a star from the esteemed French food critics at Michelin. (Yes, the same people who replace your tires are also the world’s most feared and respected food critics — go figure.) But it was also an interesting day for Jean-Luc Naret, Michelin’s directeur general, whose job is to personally call each chef and break the good (or bad) news. We caught up with the foodie world’s Santa Claus/Grinch to see how his big day went.
ES: So you actually call each of these chefs yourself? Are they expecting your call?
Jean-Luc Naret: Yes, I call each newly starred chef every year. You never know if they are expecting you. It’s sometimes really beautiful, such as with a chef like Cesar Ramirez at Brooklyn Fare [the first Brooklyn chef to ever receive two stars] who I called this morning and told him that he has two stars. That was a great call because he knows what it means. And it’s not two stars in Brooklyn — of course it is in Brooklyn, but it is two stars period. It means that his kitchen is becoming one of the best kitchens in the world. So he’s going to have a lot of focus on him now and hopefully he can keep it the same way.
But you also do the other call — when someone loses a star. Sounds awkward. How does that go?
It’s not easy, obviously, because we know it’s having an impact on the business, one way or the other. But it doesn’t mean the chef has lost his talent, because if they’ve managed to get one star, two star, three stars, then they have it. But sometimes they could have lost the focus, maybe trying to do too many things at once. It doesn’t mean that the talent is dead, it just means that we didn’t find the talent that year, so the guide has to reflect that. It’s like an actor getting an Oscar — but you’re only going to get an Oscar once or twice in your career. A chef has to do it perfectly every time. And that’s not only once in a year, but every day, and that’s very tough to do.
When they hear your voice on the phone, do they automatically know if it’s good news or bad?
Well, when they already have three stars, they know that if I’m calling it’s bad news, because you can only go down from three stars. Two years ago I had to make one of those calls and it was too difficult, the chef couldn’t take the phone. But we have plenty of chefs who have lost a star and then get it back later. People know that the stars are not written in stone. They are crystals, they break easily, so you have to take care of them. And taking care of them is not taking care of me, it’s taking care of the regular customers, because among them there will be a Michelin inspector.
Where are you off to next?
We’ll be launching the San Francisco guide October 26th and then the first ever Chicago guide will be November 17th, followed by Tokyo. Of course we hope to add more American cities soon, but I can’t say which ones yet.
Do you always eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, or do you ever say, I’m in New York, I’m just going to grab a slice of pizza?
No. Every time that I’m here I try one of the restaurants that is in the book.
PS — Made it this far? Lucky you! One reader who comments on this post will win a free copy of the 2011 Michelin Guide to New York City Restaurants.