Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Michelin, European snobbery and food fights

Which Michelin guide story would you rather read first:
1) How European snobs suckered the always gullible Wall Street Journal;
2) How I instigated a near food-fight between Michelin Guide worldwide director Jean-Luc Naret and Slanted Door chef Charles Phan?

Let's take a quick online poll, using Diebold voting machines tested in Ohio.

Great! Results are in already -- how about that? You want to read the media criticism, and you're willing to wait until afterward to read about how I got previously jolly Phan to stare daggers at Naret.

First, here's the Wall Street Journal story. It's written in the classic Time magazine style, with three reporters sending stuff to the home base to an editor who already knew what he/she wanted to say.

I'll summarize it: restaurants in Japan's Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe) did very well in the latest Michelin guide, better than the restaurants of Paris or New York or London. Therefore, the guide is wrong and Michelin gave out inflated ratings as part of a cynical business plan to sell more tires in Japan.

Folks, I lived in Japan and I'll testify that, next to Singapore, it has the best overall food on the planet. This wouldn't be a surprise to the unnamed WSJ editor if she/he was on the food beat, as gushing columns about visits to Japan by chefs and food writers are common.

The WSJ would protest that the article is not an opinion piece, like this one, but a reported story with both sides. Bullshit. The story cites independent people in New York, London and Paris who think Michelin's belief in Japanese restaurants is wrong, but not one person other than the Michelin guide chief -- obviously biased -- to defend it.

Note to WSJ: The next time, if you want some actual balance in a Eurocentric piece like this, I can give you a list of American chefs who think Japan has great food. But perhaps you're just trying to curry favor in France and the UK? Parochially praising that country's food, as you point out, is good marketing.


Everybody else who interviewed Jean-Luc Naret yesterday in San Francisco focused on which restaurants got stars or lost them.*

(*Bully for Michelin for pointing out something major Bay Area food writers are too timid to admit, that Chez Panisse -- now starless -- isn't a good dining experience. If there's a more pretentious place, I hope I never eat there. And the food is competent but uninteresting.)

But I wanted to talk to him about sake. Since last year, Michelin has awarded a little flask symbol to restaurants with noteworthy sake lists. Fifteen Bay Area restaurants (mostly Japanese, but including fusion restaurants Ame, Namu and Nombe) -- got the designation.

I'm delighted to see the recognition that sake is an important part of fine dining. It's the golden era for top-end sake, which is just as exciting as great wine and is better value.

Unfortunately Naret wasn't the guy to talk on the topic. He's brilliant -- he speaks so fast I couldn't keep up and seems to have a mental file of every starred restaurant in the world. But while he enjoys sake, he's a food guy.

I did learn Michelin felt it had to add sake lists because of the Tokyo guidebook, which had a big impact on the company's overall food culture. Michelin cross-exposes its inspectors, so it now has French and American inspectors visiting Japan and Japanese inspectors visiting Europe and the US. This is why a tire company has a global food perspective the Wall Street Journal lacks.

I also learned markup doesn't play a role in the designation of noteworthy sake lists -- or wine lists. They are French at heart, so they care about region; Michelin wants to see a choice of wines or sakes from different places, including locals where appropriate. And they care about the sommelier's knowledge and advice. But if there are a couple of affordable selections -- regardless of the markup -- a restaurant can still get the "noteworthy list" graphic for wine or sake.

The fooderati who follow the Michelin guide can afford to pay a 4x markup; what they want is a good bottle, carefully chosen and explained. But caveat emptor to those of us on a budget that "noteworthy" doesn't mean "reasonably priced."


Did you know that, despite all the pomp of its release parties and tales of selling 150,000 Tokyo guides in 24 hours, the Michelin guide doesn't make money?

Naret, who came from the hotel industry 7 years ago, said the dining guide on its own is only 0.5% of Michelin's business. As the Wall Street Journal conjectured, it's something of a loss leader for the global brand.

And no wonder, when you think about the expenses. Before giving a third star to a restaurant like Meadowood (congratulations, Christopher), inspectors will visit at least 6 times, anonymously, paying the tab each time. A cross-inspector might come from another country, and Naret might visit as well.

You can see the work in the guide. I find its uniformly positive tone a little less helpful than it could be -- when everything is good, nothing stands out. But they described 519 Bay Area restaurants in this year's guide, and you have to nitpick to find inaccurate entries. I'll leave that to others.


Instead, I'll get to the fun part.

Something I hadn't known about the Michelin guide is that it gives its stars on food quality only -- not service, not decor. Naret said he put that explicitly in the guide when he took over. He spoke of a Tokyo sushi bar under a train station that got 3 stars (pissing off the Wall Street Journal).

But most chefs still believe otherwise, and it's not pretty for them to find out the truth.

I interviewed Naret at Slanted Door because KGO (channel 7) was doing a TV interview there beforehand. Why KGO chose Slanted Door, which did not get a Michelin star, you'll have to ask them.

Naret and I were chatting when Charles Phan walked over. His restaurant had been given a "Bib Gourmand," a designation for good cheap places.

Naret said he loves Slanted Door and eats there every time he's in San Francisco; he said it's his favorite lunch place here. So I asked Phan if he thought he should have a Michelin star.

"I love my title, Bib Gourmand," Phan said. "That will bring more people to my restaurant. They have a certain aesthetic and a certain genre of restaurant and I might not fit that model. I think it's great that they might have different things for different people. Maybe I'll have to build a different type of restaurant to get a star. They can't change what they do. Life is like that. It's not one size fits all. If we weren't in the guide at all, something wouldn't be right."

Then I turned to Naret and asked why Phan doesn't have a star.

"He's not looking for a star," Naret said. "He's doing 950 covers a day. You can eat as much as you can here at a very reasonable price. We love the food."

So I channeled my inner Jerry Springer and asked him, "But the star isn't about the size or the price, right? Isn't it only about the food?"

"It's about the food itself," Naret said.

"So what's more important, the Bib Gourmand or the star?" I asked.

"The star," Naret said.

"So let me ask this," I said. "You say this is your favorite lunch restaurant in San Francisco, that you eat here every time you come. And size and decor don't matter. So why doesn't it have a star?"

This was the only time I saw Naret hem and haw. I didn't get down his noncommittal words, though, because it was then that Phan realized what I was saying, and his facial expression changed from "I got a Bib Gourmand!" to "you stole my wallet and I'm going to kill you."

I said that if Slanted Door is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the country, and it didn't get a star, was it even possible for a Vietnamese restaurant to get a star? Phan didn't say anything, but he didn't like that either. Naret demurred, he said the Bib Gourmand is a very important award. And then I let him off the hook, and went back to talking about sake.

I took the photo of the two of them before this question sequence. But the discomfort only lasted a couple of minutes. By the time I left, Phan was smiling again and the two were sitting together, chatting like good friends.

But it does bring me back to the Wall Street Journal story. The paper was asking the wrong question -- not whether Japanese restaurants are really that good, but whether Vietnamese and Thai and Indian and Mexican restaurants really don't measure up.


Portland Charcuterie Project said...

This is a pretty boring article.

If I wanted to read about Michelin stars, I'd follow that blog.

Can we get back to wine please?

( your biggest fan )

W. Blake Gray said...

Consider this my "Kid A" album, then.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for interesting article.
Myself, a big fan of Slanted Door is sad to see Asian cuisine other than Japanese food having hard time to get on the guide book. Hope the day is not too far.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fun story and how the tire/food people work.

King Krak, I Smell the Stench said...

The Wall Street Journal covers food and wine?

Cara said...

I appreciate your thoughts on the Michelin Guide and that you called out the WSJ for a shoddy story.

I actually would not have known about the sake recommendations, so thank you, and I felt that since you touched on it with Naret for us here, I do not at all mind the content of this piece. It was a very frank look at the Michelin Guide system.

I live in NYC and on visits to SF, I've never gotten to Chez Panisse, but the thing I found most valuable was that it's just not that great. I would rather try the Slanted Door or revamped Quince which I keep hearing good things about.

And I've never been to Japan, but I'm not actually that surprised to hear how fabulous their food scene is.

Arthur said...

The experience of reading this post is like waking up to a Guy Ritchie movie and being awake enough to follow the shifts between subplots.

I have to say, though: "a tire company has a global food perspective the Wall Street Journal lacks" is a poignant point.

Arthur said...

make that "...and NOT being awake enough to follow..."

where's my coffee?...

W. Blake Gray said...

OK, Arthur, I will refund you all the money you paid to read it. Send me your mailing address.

Christian Miller said...

"...was it even possible for a Vietnamese restaurant to get a star?"

I believe that Vietnamese restaurants in Paris, such as Tan Dinh, have been awarded stars on occasion.

Arthur said...


It was just a comment.
Very interesting account of a peculiar situation.

W. Blake Gray said...

Fair enough. I'm a little bitchy today, despite the Giants' great win last note.

(Note to self: Make sure there's a "y" on the end of that word.)

ericlee said...

I have friends who consider themselves international "foodies", and never have even considered going to Japan for a dining tour.
Hell, even the Denny's in Tokyo Shinjuku district is a wonderful place to eat.

1winedude said...

And here all this time I'd thought they had something to do with auto tires...

Anatoli Levine said...

Thank you for the great read!