Last week, Michelin unleashed its 2011 New York City restaurant ratings guide. One of the most important industry publications, Michelin's stars can alter the course of restaurants new and old. I chatted with Michelin's director Jean-Luc Naret about the application process of a Michelin inspector, the lifestyle, and why they are so strict about anonymity.
You were originally in the hotel business. What drew you to restaurant reviewing? I was in the hotel industry for more than 20 years and said that when I was 40, I would start doing something else. There's a lot of hotels around the world but only one Michelin guide. They were starting to expand so I jumped on board—that was seven years ago.
What sets Michelin apart from other restaurant guides, such as Zagat, and from newspaper and publication reviews? We have a hundred years of expertise. But at the same time we have a lot of humility and really want to understand the culture of the cuisine. And, we're using anonymous reviewers. We don't take into account personal preferences—we visit restaurants multiple times by multiple inspectors.
How many times is a restaurant visited before the stars are awarded? For a star it could be three, four, or as many as twelve visits within a year. Consistency is the most important thing. You could have a beautiful restaurant but everything else needs to be three-star too. We go back multiple times and at different times of the year.
Why are the inspectors kept so strictly anonymous? Everybody knows my face. Obviously when I go to a restaurant, I get different treatment from a regular customer. I don't like preference in the guide—we're trying to say that if you pick a restaurant from this guide, you will experience the same format that our inspectors experienced.
How does one become a Michelin inspector? We receive thousands of applications when starting in a new country. It's not a part-time job—you have to eat by passion. You have to have the eye for detail. You should be able to memorize everything you eat without writing it down. You should be able to recount your experience after the meal.
What's the interview process like? We take inspectors to a restaurant and after the meal, they fill out a report so we can understand how they eat. Once we hire them, they travel around the world and train with other inspectors, then start working.
What are some specific criteria inspectors are looking for when they visit a restaurant? Two things: the first is the ambiance of the restaurant, the service, the glassware and everything—that's the "classification" of the restaurant. Is this a bistro or a fine dining restaurant? Then they look at the menu and order as wide a selection as they can. Look at the choice of ingredients, the flavors, the cooking technique, the personality of the chef in the plate, and most importantly, they look at consistency throughout the menu and throughout their visits.
How often do you eat out? Every day. Lunch and dinner.
What is your favorite cuisine? I don't have a favorite, I love every cuisine. The beauty of New York City is that you have 55 cuisines. You can really eat anywhere in the world in New York.
What is your favorite restaurant? This year it was the kitchen at Brooklyn Fare, a small neighborhood market with a chef's table run by Cesar Ramirez, open to only a small number of diners. You walk in and there's 15 seats and you bring your own wine; Cesar focuses on the food. We gave them two stars, which means it's one of the top 15 restaurants in New York.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.