For most, the MICHELIN Guide is an institution shrouded in mystery, from its anonymous inspectors to its century of tradition. We scoured the net and asked industry insiders for their most pressing questions about the prestigious red guide. From the “Michelin curse” in Hong Kong to what happens when chefs return their stars, Michael Ellis candidly explains while shedding light on the cornerstone of the guide’s long prevailing success.
How does a traditional print guide like Michelin stay relevant in today’s digital world?
User-generated content is everywhere now—people may use three, four, or five sources before they make their choice to dine somewhere. But in this fog of almost unlimited information, the MICHELIN Guide plays the role of a North Star or gold standard. At the end of the day you really don’t know who is leading that opinion there. Does he or she know the restaurant? How does this person eat? Do they share my taste? Michelin’s ability to have as objective of an opinion as possible is what keeps us relevant and respected. Our inspectors are all full-time salaried employees and food experts—many are former chefs—who go anonymously to restaurants, always pay their bills and apply the same five objective criteria.
Our traditional model has always been books, publishing paper guides. That’s still an important aspect of what we do—we have a lot of collectors out there, and our paper editions co-exist comfortably with our digital. But there’s no question that the future of our ability to communicate, to get our selection out there to the widest audience in the most efficient and cost-effective way, is our digital platform. We’re really accelerating our digital presence around the world.
What makes an expert an expert?
In 1981, I heard about a lawyer who lived in Baltimore, Maryland who liked wine and wanted to write about it. That lawyer was Robert Parker. He started making carbon copies of his newsletter called The Wine Advocate. I started getting this newsletter and found that what I was reading corresponded to what I was tasting. I started to trust this guy; what he was saying speaks to me. People found what he was saying rang true to them. It’s the same thing for Michelin. If people don’t find what you’re saying to be true, then your claim to be an expert will quickly fall apart. And there’s no body of experts out there deciding who should be an expert—I think you have to earn that right.
What do you have to say about chefs returning their stars?
The MICHELIN Guide reflects an opinion. It’s a point of view. You can agree or disagree, but you can’t give it back. If a movie critic goes to a movie and says it’s a good movie, or not a good movie, the director of the movie can’t say: “I’m going to give you your opinion back.” In the 117-year history of the guide, there have been rare occasions of chefs saying they are returning their stars, but the stars aren’t something physical you can give back.
What do you think of the Michelin “curse” in land-scarce Hong Kong, where restaurants are sometimes hit with an unsustainable increase in rent after receiving their distinction?
The MICHELIN Guide is focused only on the quality of the food in restaurants, and we of course cannot take in to consideration issues other than food. However, our experience has shown that the restaurants we put into the selection are happy and proud to be a part of the MICHELIN Guide.
There are assertions that because Michelin is given money by tourist boards to make the Guide, it is under pressure to award stars and thus this undermines its credibility. What do you think of that?
For more than a century, the cornerstone of the MICHELIN Guide’s success has been our total editorial independence. This is something that is non-negotiable and will never change, because it would mean the end of the MICHELIN Guide as it is today.
There will be a special cover for the 10th edition of the Hong Kong - Macau Guide. Why does Michelin want a dedicated cover for this edition?
In every country, the 10th edition is always a milestone, and we like to highlight that fact!
What kind of culinary landscape do you envision for the area in the coming decade?
Hong Kong and Macau have vibrant, thriving restaurant scenes with both a local and visiting client base that is passionate about food. This means that the dining scene will continue to evolve, with new and exciting restaurants arriving regularly.
What is one message you’d like to pass on to chefs and restaurateurs?
In order to be successful, you have to know what your customers want to eat, how much they are willing to pay and what atmosphere they want to be in. If you understand that, you can work backwards from there. An example is the expansion of fine Japanese dining around the world.
Japanese cuisine is not something that is intellectually-accessible to everybody. It is very cerebral food. We just launched our 13th New York City edition, and there were six new one-stars and one new two-star, Ginza Onodera, an excellent sushi restaurant. And three of the six new one-starred restaurants were Japanese. That means now in New York, out of 72 starred restaurants, 18 of them—or 20 percent—are Japanese restaurants. In the entire book, there’s roughly 30 percent Japanese eateries. This shows that New York City chefs and restaurateurs understands Japanese food. Unlike say in Chicago, there’s not one single Japanese restaurant with a star. That means to say if someone wanted to go to the States and open a Japanese restaurant, he’d be better off in New York City than Chicago.
It’s very important for a chef to understand what local tastes are before opening a restaurant. If you understand that, you will be successful, and one day the MICHELIN Guide will find you!