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Chat and Interview with Derek Bulmer


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Derek,

does it concern you that the range of 3 designations is potentially too narrow?

As it stands there very much seems to tiers within certain designations. In each class, there certainly seems to be "first among equals".

I specifically refer to the 1 star standard where there seems to be some margin between the highest and lowest quality of food.

those tapping on the door of 2* are very far removed from those who seem to be moving down out of the awards.

I appreciate that any sort of system will necessitate this 'margin' to some degree, in my opinion in seems to be too wide to be entirely reliable at the single star level.

is there any agitation or concern at michelin headquarters about these issue?

A meal without wine is... well, erm, what is that like?

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Derek,

Thank you for your clear responses to date.

I understand that Michelin is judging ‘the experience as presented’ (my paraphrase).

But it is the top tier(s) that attract the attention and the ‘starred chefs’ are (or were) specifically identified at the top restaurants. And more frequently, we find these chefs undertaking numerous activities outside the restaurant itself.

As an example (for clarification only – I’m not looking for a response on this restaurant specifically), Gordon Ramsay himself has been in the USA frequently so rarely cooks at Royal Hospital Road. Mark Askew ‘nominally’ cooks, but he wasn’t there on my recent visit.

My real question though, is how Michelin handles these “who may be in the kitchen” issues. Do you know (or care) whether the owner/normal chef/overworked but talented underling are actually there when you visit?

If, hypothetically, a bad experience occurs is this a ‘valid’ review (potentially leading to a downgrade) or would an inspector make a determined effort to revisit when the ‘nominee’ is there in person?

Or, in simple terms, should we (or you) even care if the chef Michelin reviewed is in the kitchen?

[As an observation: On a trip to Spain eating in 4 ‘starred’ Michelin restaurants, the chef was in the house at all four (although Michelin Espana doesn’t identify chefs). In the UK, at 3 ‘starred’ restaurants, I have never found the nominal chef in attendance].

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I'm very interested in the avant garde movement. Call it molecular gastronomy, culinary constructivism, whatever you want.

How does Michelin view the current avant garde movement in cookery? Is there any tension between what its customers might traditionally look for in the guide and its ability to recommend the most experimental chefs to its readership? Also, how much is Michelin affected by global trend in food?

Styles in cookery are changing all the time but the fundamentals of good cooking stay the same - good products prepared with skill and care using compatible ingredients etc. When properly understood and executed molecular gastronomy can be very exciting and rewarding and it's growing in poularity throughout Europe at present.

It's true, however, that it doesn't appeal to everyone and we use our short descriptive text after each entry to tell our readers about the style of cooking in a particular restaurant, leaving them to make an informed choice.

Global trends affect the food cooked in reataurants and Michelin simply reports on these trends to inform its readership. It therefore follows that we must be indirectly affected by such trends.

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Derek,

Thank you for your clear responses to date.

I understand that Michelin is judging ‘the experience as presented’ (my paraphrase).

But it is the top tier(s) that attract the attention and the ‘starred chefs’ are (or were) specifically identified at the top restaurants. And more frequently, we find these chefs undertaking numerous activities outside the restaurant itself.

As an example (for clarification only – I’m not looking for a response on this restaurant specifically), Gordon Ramsay himself has been in the USA frequently so rarely cooks at Royal Hospital Road. Mark Askew ‘nominally’ cooks, but he wasn’t there on my recent visit.

My real question though, is how Michelin handles these “who may be in the kitchen” issues. Do you know (or care) whether the owner/normal chef/overworked but talented underling are actually there when you visit?

If, hypothetically, a bad experience occurs is this a ‘valid’ review (potentially leading to a downgrade) or would an inspector make a determined effort to revisit when the ‘nominee’ is there in person?

Or, in simple terms, should we (or you) even care if the chef Michelin reviewed is in the kitchen?

[As an observation: On a trip to Spain eating in 4 ‘starred’ Michelin restaurants, the chef was in the house at all four (although Michelin Espana doesn’t identify chefs). In the UK, at 3 ‘starred’ restaurants, I have never found the nominal chef in attendance].

Michelin judge food not people so the most important consideration for us is how well we have eaten rather than if the chef is in attendance.

If we ate poorly and knew that the chef was away it would still be a valid experience because we would have paid the same price irrespective of who was doing the cooking. Would we return? yes certainly because stars are awarded and deleted or several experiences in order to judge the consistency.

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Derek,

does it concern you that the range of 3 designations is potentially too narrow?

As it stands there very much seems to tiers within certain designations.  In each class, there certainly seems to be "first among equals". 

I specifically refer to the 1 star standard where there seems to be some margin between the highest and lowest quality of food.

those tapping on the door of 2* are very far removed from those who seem to be moving down out of the awards.

I appreciate that any sort of system will necessitate this 'margin' to some degree, in my opinion in seems to be too wide to be entirely reliable at the single star level.

is there any agitation or concern at michelin headquarters about these issue?

You must remember that we have been making Michelin guides for over a century now and our current system is both understood by our readers and respected by the industry. We would not change it lightly.

Please remember also that the definition of one star is, and always has been, 'A very good restaurant (or pub in the case of the GB guide) in its category' and we actually warn our readers not to compare the star at a deluxe restaurant with that at a simple one.

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Michelin judge food not people so the most important consideration for us is how well we have eaten rather than if the chef is in attendance.

If we ate poorly and knew that the chef was away it would still be a valid experience because we would have paid the same price irrespective of who was doing the cooking. Would we return? yes certainly because stars are awarded and deleted or several experiences in order to judge the consistency.

I would assume at the two and three star level, which is where it counts as those are the chefs most likely to be away doing promotional or charity work, you'd want to sample as many nights as possible when the chef's not there, although it might not always be easy to plan. As a diner, I'd be more interested in assurances that I'd eat well and not that the chef would be there. I recall Bernard Loiseau the French chef being quoted as saying his sous chef cools Loiseau better than he himself cooks his own food. He was quoted as saying this the year before he earned his third star.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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. Please keep filling in our questionnaires though because the guides thrive on reader feedback.

for the first time i used the 'my opinion' function on viamichelin yesterday.

Michelin claim to answer all correspondence and they did.

and not just a standard letter, so quite impressed.

cheers

gary

you don't win friends with salad

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was it paul bocuse who when asked 'who cooks when you're not there'

replied...

'the same person who cooks when i am'!

cheers

gary

Assuming this follows on to my original question above, my issue was more " who cooks, when the person who cooks when you're not there, is not there" - at least in my example - and it was just that; I'm not knocking my meal at Ramsay(which was very good, but probably not in my favourite 3 UK meals, and a little short of what I expected in a 3* experience).

And Derek's answer was, of course, spot on - Michelin rates the food not the chef. It's the rest of 'us' (in quotes deliberately because I'm not even hinting that I meant anybody on this thread) who identify with the chef.

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Derek - you described your typical inspector as being drawn from the hotel and caterering industry, but do you ever recruit from outside the industry? I imagine the job of Michelin inspector might be one or two eGullet member's idear of the perfect job.

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Dear Derek

How many of your UK Michelin inspectors are female? What percentage do they form of the total number of inspectors?

I've only one at present although in the past I've had as many as four.

1 woman :shock::angry: . Why is this?

We simply don't get as many woman applying as men and they tend not to treat it as a career as some of the male inspectors do.

You may be interested to know that the GB guide was the first Michelin guide to employ female inspectors at a time when it was very much a male dominated professional.

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Derek - you described your typical inspector as being drawn from the hotel and caterering industry, but do you ever recruit from outside the industry? I imagine the job of Michelin inspector might be one or two eGullet member's idear of the perfect job.

To date we have stuck with candidates from the industry simply because it cuts down on the training necessary. If they already have a degree/HND in hotel and catering and good relevant experience then they would already know what makes a hotel or restaurant tick and just need training in Michelin's methods (up to 6 months).

That being said I believe that anyone with a good education and a passion for the subject could be trained to do the job.

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Derek,

Thank you so much for being here and replying to so various questions that gives more transparency.

On the other hand, some people say that the mystery of Michelin has set its prestige. Why has the Michelin policy of silence changed?

Another question that comes up regularly: do there exist quota for countries to have a certain number of one, and especially two or three star restaurants?

I notice myself that in quite a few countries, the numbers of two and three star restaurants stay the same over the years. (Take Belgium: had three three stars uptil last year; from this year on it has again three restaurants with three stars.)

Last question for the moment: how do you think does the negative publicity on Michelin affects the prestige of Michelin and its ratings?

Since last year, the book of Pascal Rémy caused quite a few negative publicity, as did the book of Olivier Marteau.

This year there is the scandal of the Benelux guide of which all copies have to be taken back because of the mentioning of a bib gourmand restaurant which could never have been visited by an inspector.

Paul

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The most we would do, and only if asked, is to give a limited feedback on our experiences and those of our readers.

What would be the situation if a chef said to an inspector that he wanted to know what he would need to do to improve his rating, say from 1 to 2 stars?

The inspector would tell the chef that 2 stars requires an greater degree of finesse and some originality in the cooking and he would suggest the chef try some existing 2 stars restaurants to see the level required.

Have you ever really found the need to offer such feedback? In France at least, there is a process to becoming a Michelin starred Chef. I'm not implying that it can be attained by just anyone following the process or that there is a single trajectory. Nonetheless, it doesn't happen incidentally. By the time a chef is at the level of being considered for a Michelin star he has a grasp of what the criteria is. And he also knows the exhorbitant costs involved in such entreprises. ..

By the way welcome to the forum. I didn't notice this chat untill a short while ago. I'm glad I caught it.

The one time we do provide feedback - if it is requested - is when a restaurant loses a star. We feel it is only fair to explain the reasons behind our decisions but we still stop short of giving advice.

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Derek, thank you for joining us here.

I would be curious to know what you think about the impact of Michelin guides on the style (ambience, service, wine list size and so on) high end restaurants seem to aim at. Do you think restaurants try to modify their style to fit into your parameters? In Italy restaurants aiming at higher Michelin scores (2 and 3 stars) are often accused of giving up their Italian character to follow a "French" model. Regardless of what one might think about this accusation, it is hard to deny these restaurants often invest in improving those parameters that are an essential part of the haute cuisine experience. Can one observe a similar effect in the UK?

As I've spent all of a couple of days in the UK over the past decade let me continue to ask questions, but first, I realize I didn't thank you for coming here and subjecting yourself to this for our pleasure. Thanks for the insight you're offering here.

I'll suggest it would be naive to believe any guide, especially one with scores, be they numerical or the award of stars, doesn't have an effect on the very things it rates, if it is a successful guide. We've all heard of French wineries that attempt to "parkerize" their wines. In fact it was a winemaker from the UK working in France who first used that expression in speaking to me. Do you, the corporate Michelin "you," take any responsibility in this regard and is there really anything you can do about it. You have your standards and certainly it would seem as if anything an establishment did to meet your standards would be good for the consumer if you believe in your standards. Thus my question might better be phrased as do you worry that establishments will misconstrue your standards and do the wrong thing in a misguided attempt to gain a star and is that your problem? Would it serve any purpose to be more explicit about the ratings why they were given? Has any thought ever been given to the idea of offering full blown text critiques of the multistarred establishments?

Our responsibility is primarily to our readers but if the standards we set lead to a general raising of standards in the industry then we would regard this as a bonus for everyone.

We are however concerned that chefs sometimes misunderstand our standards and cook what they think we would like rather than what their customers would like. This can be a recipe for disaster and we would always advise chefs that any decisions they make should be for sound commercial reasons.

I take your point about greater transparency in our ratings and it's something we will certainly consider in the future as is your suggestion of full blown text critiques for our multistarred restaurants.

Surely Michelin must have SOME idea that Michelin starred restaurants, at least in France, don't operate deeply in the black, if at all. And that to meet the Michelin criteria for stars is an expensive business. Do you see the contradiction in this? Advising decisions on the basis of sound commercial reasons while at the same time setting forth criteria that are becoming increasingly costly ($$$$$$) to meet?

No one at Michelin has ever told a chef or proprietor that they must do things in a certain way. Remember that stars are awarded for the restaurant's cooking , and for that alone. As for the comfort and style of the surroundings, there are two important points to bear in mind:

1. It is the restaurateur who makes decisions about the restaurant, based upon what he thinks the customers expect and appreciate

2. The restaurateur naturally wants a setting and a level of comfort which best enables customers to enjoy their food and sets off the food to best advantage

It has often been the case that restaurants have invested heavily after they have gained their third star.

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Derek,

Thank you so much for being here and replying to so various questions that gives more transparency.

On the other hand, some people say that the mystery of Michelin has set its prestige. Why has the Michelin policy of silence changed?

Another question that comes up regularly: do there exist quota for countries to have a certain number of one, and especially two or three star restaurants?

I notice myself that in quite a few countries, the numbers of two and three star restaurants stay the same over the years. (Take Belgium: had three three stars uptil last year; from this year on it has again three restaurants with three stars.)

Last question for the moment: how do you think does the negative publicity on Michelin affects the prestige of Michelin and its ratings?

Since last year, the book of Pascal Rémy caused quite a few negative publicity, as did the book of Olivier Marteau.

This year there is the scandal of the Benelux guide of which all copies have to be taken back because of the mentioning of a bib gourmand restaurant which could never have been visited by an inspector.

Paul

It's interesting to hear you say that Michelin's prestige results from its secrecy. Most people say the opposite and we have been criticised in the past for not being more open. Anyway we feel the time is appropriate to give our readers, and anyone else who is interested, an insight into how we work and what influences our decisions. We haven't revealed everything however, and some details will always remain secret!

There are certainly not quotas relating to stars and if I could find 10 more 3 srtar restaurants in GB tomorrow I would be delighted. However the reality is that 3 star restaurants are rare beasts indeed and new ones don't come along very often.

It's what makes them so special.

Whilst I am not able to comment on either of the specific cases you mentioned

I am naturally disappointed when I read such negative publiity about any of our Michelin guides. I hope some of my answers this week have reassured eGullet members of our thoroughness, professionalism and total dedication to the job in hand.

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Mr. Bulmer,

Thank you for making yourself available and being so thorough with your answers. I'm a Chef that previously worked in Europe for about 9 years @ The Square, Le Manior etc and recently (4 years ago) have returned home to Vancouver -Canada. There have been rumors of the guide coming to North America over the last few years, can you confirm if this is true or how long it may take?

Thank you

David Hawksworth

www.westrestaurant.com

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Derek, I know that your current responsibilities are concentrated in the UK, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on the following:

There are several discussions on this board relating to a potential demise of French haute cuisine, the “sunken cathedral,” which in the minds of some is slowly becoming a “city that chants beneath the waves” (Alex Ross). Such views are not so much a mere reflection on the growing interest in other parts of Europe, such as Spain, as a growing disappointment with the decrease of integrity in some long-standing three-star institutions that no longer justify their high Michelin ratings and maneuver cleverly enough to fool an average diner by maintaining an illusion of luxury and perfection, but fail with a newly growing class of educated connoisseurs who are no longer a reticent fraction of the population, but a class of diners who devote significant resources, time and effort in search of the best. These diners not only educate their palates in familiarizing them with Belon, Bouzigues, Arcachon, Cancale, Marennes-Oléron etc. oysters in general, but also strive to be able to distinguish the flavor peculiarities between Fines de Claires aged for one month and Gillardeau aged for two months. Such perceptive diners can easily detect an “assembly-line” pre-cooked performance, no matter how cleverly disguised, as described by vmilor about his recent experience at Le Cinq.

La Tour D’Argent is another example. While retaining its superior rating and maintaining a certain veil of untouchablity, it is now long off the radar of educated diners, a restaurant about which not even one positive report has appeared on this board since inception, leaving the impression that its historical significance overwhelms its actual value. Therefore, reading your comments about the evaluation criteria for the inspectors, with an overwhelming emphasis on food, was somewhat surprising.

My concern is that it is not that French haute cuisine is on the decline, but that the Michelin evaluation process has become less demanding, so that a disappointment at a three-star restaurant is not attributed to a possible mistake in the restaurant’s evaluation, but rather construed as a reflection on the overall French dining scene. Lowering the Michelin bar also gives chefs less incentive to strive for perfection. Perhaps diners indeed have just become more critical, which should put more burden on the shoulders of the inspectors and tighten their criteria, but I’d be interested in hearing your observations on whether you and other Michelin inspectors have registered any changes in the high dining scene of France, and if not, why you think the question of decline is so frequently raised? Is Michelin considering any adjustments to the evaluation process?

Edited by lxt (log)
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Other examples could be added.

For years the three star restaurant in Brussels, Comme chez soi, was considered by many not longer as a three star restaurant, but since Wynants is the Paul Bocuse ambassador type of Belgium, it kept the three stars; at least, the latter is what was suspected.

Hof van Cleve in Kruishoutem has been considered for years to be a three star restaurant. Only this year it got its third star (after having been given 19,5/20 by GaultMillau last year).

Some think that the Belgium restaurant Clos St-Denis deserves its third star as well, since a long time.

Another example is the excellent Parisian restaurant Le Carré des Feuillants of Alain Dutournier, for whom was expected since years a third star as well.

Unfortunately, on specific restaurants will not be commented, and of course: difference in opinions is also possible.

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Mr. Bulmer,

Thank you for making yourself available and being so thorough with your answers. I'm a Chef that previously worked in Europe for about 9 years @ The Square, Le Manior etc and recently (4 years ago) have returned home to Vancouver -Canada. There have been rumors of the guide coming to North America over the last few years, can you confirm if this is true or how long it may take?

Thank you

David Hawksworth

www.westrestaurant.com

Hello David

I remember the name, if not the face and I've just been reading an article about you in this week's 'Restaurant' magazine written by Andy.

I afraid I can't give you any concrete answers about North America just yet, other than to confirm that a study is currently being carried out in New York. An announcement regarding our future plans should be made during the coming months so keep your eye on the eGullet site as they are sure to cover any story as soon as it breaks.

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Derek - you described your typical inspector as being drawn from the hotel and caterering industry, but do you ever recruit from outside the industry? I imagine the job of Michelin inspector might be one or two eGullet member's idear of the perfect job.

That being said I believe that anyone with a good education and a passion for the subject could be trained to do the job.

Where do I apply? :wink:

"Why would we want Children? What do they know about food?"

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Derek, I know that your current responsibilities are concentrated in the UK, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on the following:

There are several discussions on this board relating to a potential demise of French haute cuisine, the “sunken cathedral,” which in the minds of some is slowly becoming a “city that chants beneath the waves” (Alex Ross). Such views are not so much a mere reflection on the growing interest in other parts of Europe, such as Spain, as a growing disappointment with the decrease of integrity in some long-standing three-star institutions that no longer justify their high Michelin ratings and maneuver cleverly enough to fool an average diner by maintaining an illusion of luxury and perfection, but fail with a newly growing class of educated connoisseurs who are no longer a reticent fraction of the population, but a class of diners who devote significant resources, time and effort in search of the best. These diners not only educate their palates in familiarizing them with Belon, Bouzigues, Arcachon, Cancale, Marennes-Oléron etc. oysters in general, but also strive to be able to distinguish the flavor peculiarities between Fines de Claires aged for one month and Gillardeau aged for two months. Such perceptive diners can easily detect an “assembly-line” pre-cooked performance, no matter how cleverly disguised, as described by vmilor about his recent experience at Le Cinq.

La Tour D’Argent is another example. While retaining its superior rating and maintaining a certain veil of untouchablity, it is now long off the radar of educated diners, a restaurant about which not even one positive report has appeared on this board since inception, leaving the impression that its historical significance overwhelms its actual value.  Therefore, reading your comments about the evaluation criteria for the inspectors, with an overwhelming emphasis on food, was somewhat surprising.

My concern is that it is not that French haute cuisine is on the decline, but that the Michelin evaluation process has become less demanding, so that a disappointment at a three-star restaurant is not attributed to a possible mistake in the restaurant’s evaluation, but rather construed as a reflection on the overall French dining scene.  Lowering the Michelin bar also gives chefs less incentive to strive for perfection.  Perhaps diners indeed have just become more critical, which should put more burden on the shoulders of the inspectors and tighten their criteria, but I’d be interested in hearing your observations on whether you and other Michelin inspectors have registered any changes in the high dining scene of France, and if not, why you think the question of decline is so frequently raised?  Is Michelin considering any adjustments to the evaluation process?

I'm sorry if I appear to be ducking the issue but your questions are quite profound and I simply don't have a sufficiently in-depth knowledge of the French restaurant scene to be able to give you informed answers.

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Derek - you described your typical inspector as being drawn from the hotel and caterering industry, but do you ever recruit from outside the industry? I imagine the job of Michelin inspector might be one or two eGullet member's idear of the perfect job.

That being said I believe that anyone with a good education and a passion for the subject could be trained to do the job.

Where do I apply? :wink:

The address is on the back of the guide but I'm afraid I don't have any vacancies at present.

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Derek, thank you for joining us here.

I would be curious to know what you think about the impact of Michelin guides on the style (ambience, service, wine list size and so on) high end restaurants seem to aim at. Do you think restaurants try to modify their style to fit into your parameters? In Italy restaurants aiming at higher Michelin scores (2 and 3 stars) are often accused of giving up their Italian character to follow a "French" model. Regardless of what one might think about this accusation, it is hard to deny these restaurants often invest in improving those parameters that are an essential part of the haute cuisine experience. Can one observe a similar effect in the UK?

As I've spent all of a couple of days in the UK over the past decade let me continue to ask questions, but first, I realize I didn't thank you for coming here and subjecting yourself to this for our pleasure. Thanks for the insight you're offering here.

I'll suggest it would be naive to believe any guide, especially one with scores, be they numerical or the award of stars, doesn't have an effect on the very things it rates, if it is a successful guide. We've all heard of French wineries that attempt to "parkerize" their wines. In fact it was a winemaker from the UK working in France who first used that expression in speaking to me. Do you, the corporate Michelin "you," take any responsibility in this regard and is there really anything you can do about it. You have your standards and certainly it would seem as if anything an establishment did to meet your standards would be good for the consumer if you believe in your standards. Thus my question might better be phrased as do you worry that establishments will misconstrue your standards and do the wrong thing in a misguided attempt to gain a star and is that your problem? Would it serve any purpose to be more explicit about the ratings why they were given? Has any thought ever been given to the idea of offering full blown text critiques of the multistarred establishments?

Our responsibility is primarily to our readers but if the standards we set lead to a general raising of standards in the industry then we would regard this as a bonus for everyone.

We are however concerned that chefs sometimes misunderstand our standards and cook what they think we would like rather than what their customers would like. This can be a recipe for disaster and we would always advise chefs that any decisions they make should be for sound commercial reasons.

I take your point about greater transparency in our ratings and it's something we will certainly consider in the future as is your suggestion of full blown text critiques for our multistarred restaurants.

Surely Michelin must have SOME idea that Michelin starred restaurants, at least in France, don't operate deeply in the black, if at all. And that to meet the Michelin criteria for stars is an expensive business. Do you see the contradiction in this? Advising decisions on the basis of sound commercial reasons while at the same time setting forth criteria that are becoming increasingly costly ($$$$$$) to meet?

No one at Michelin has ever told a chef or proprietor that they must do things in a certain way. Remember that stars are awarded for the restaurant's cooking , and for that alone. As for the comfort and style of the surroundings, there are two important points to bear in mind:

1. It is the restaurateur who makes decisions about the restaurant, based upon what he thinks the customers expect and appreciate

2. The restaurateur naturally wants a setting and a level of comfort which best enables customers to enjoy their food and sets off the food to best advantage

It has often been the case that restaurants have invested heavily after they have gained their third star.

My "behind the scenes" experience and knowledge tells me that by the time a restaurant is at the three star level they are more than likely already operating in the red. To add more AFTER they receive the recognition is a recipe for bankruptcy. Which has happened. So maybe it's better to tone it down on the financial expenses even at the risk of losing a star or two or all to keep the doors open. But the savvy business minded chef has always used the stars to build a brand name to use for other, more casual affairs that generate greater income. I read a comparison of Michelin to an Oscar. Very telling comparision. In America we don't have the Michelin crowned chefs, we have Food TV chefs who usually have multiple restaurants.

Yes, this is a statement not a question. And yes, Michelin does not dictate to restaurants what they should. They merely set forth criteria that restaurants "feel" are financially exhorbitant to meet.

I can be reached via email chefzadi AT gmail DOT com

Dean of Culinary Arts

Ecole de Cuisine: Culinary School Los Angeles

http://ecolecuisine.com

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