The 2009 edition of the San Francisco Michelin guide was released last Monday, which meant that the guide's director Jean-Luc Naret was in town too. While he was here, we had the chance to chat with him about a variety of topics:
Is it harder for a newly-opened restaurant to crack the stars? For example, this year, Murray Circle was the only restaurant opened in '08 to get a star but its chef, Joseph Humphrey, earned two last year so he's already established himself to the Michelin inspectors as a "starworthy" chef. Well no, it's not any harder for a new chef to crack stars. When a new restaurants opens, we still take a look at the chef and the job he's doing. The chef at Murray Circle is doing a great job and in a funny twist, the restaurant he left, Meadowood, earned two stars right away even though it has a new chef as well. What's the usual minimum time the inspectors wait after opening and how many times do they usually visit? We will never go on the first two months of business and there's no specific, minimum number of times the inspectors visit. They will usually go two times or three times or sometimes four, especially when we give or take away a star. Whenever stars are involved, the inspectors like to visit several times to get the most accurate picture.
Let's talk specifics. The most glaring absence from the star list is Quince, which lost a star. The question everyone wants to know is if the demotion was based on a dip in quality or because it's going to moving venues in January? We know you're not an inspector, but do you have any light to shed on the issue? Well there's always a good reason to lose a star and yes, several restaurants lost stars this year, not just Quince. Maybe a restaurant will lose a star because of a closure but we don't take away stars based on rumors or anything like that. It's always based on the past year's performance and what inspectors find on the plate. Of course I can't speak for the inspectors but I think they're thinking it's not really based on a move in this case [Ed. note: more on this later; promise.]. If so, it's really because we couldn't find the right level of consistency. The star ratings are based on the result of the inspections and there's always a good reason to lose a star. But that doesn't mean that the star can't be earned next year.
In your eyes, how do Bay Area restaurants differ from those in New York, Vegas and LA? You're the first to really find the local product and everything is really product oriented and that's really great. Now people in other cities, too, are realizing you can fly in tomatoes all year round but the quality is not the same as a local tomato, and that's something that has to be a conscious decision when building a menu – the choice to use the freshest, most local ingredient. It's a question of choice and San Francisco has made that choice in the correct way.
Europe and America. Michelin has been in America for a few years now. Is there anything that Michelin has learned in New York or the rest of the States that it has brought back to Europe? Well of course. The first thing we learned from New York is the challenge of making a city guide, because that was the first time we tackled a city rather than an entire country. Before the city guides, the guide could get a bit too crusty and for example, simply covered all of the restaurants in Italy. When I took over a few years ago, I said let's take on a city guide. And now we apply exactly the same recipe that we did in New York to the rest of the cities around the world. So now we have guides for individual cities in Europe, following the format we pioneered here in the United States.
Is there anything to the thought that the guide is tailored more to a European palate than an American one? No, that's not true. For each individual guide, 75 to 80 percent of the people that are buying the guide are locals. The inspectors are local as well. In the States we have ten inspectors working full time, working on the guide year round so it's not a French palate that's behind the guide, but a local one.
In your press conference last Monday, you mentioned Hong Kong and Macau are the next cities for Michelin, but also that there are some US cities on the horizon. Yes, the selection for Hong Kong is coming on the 2nd of December and yes, we continue to develop an international presence, including here in the States. So what's next for Michelin in US? We assume Chicago has to be one of the potential cities. Eater is launching a Chicago site soon, you know. Yes absolutely, Chicago is under consideration. When we look at a city: we look at four specific items of interest: One, the number of restaurants total. Two, the number of restaurants that could potentially earn stars. Then we look at people who would potentially buy the guide. Finally, we look at the food community and how serious food is. With those four criteria, we get a good sense of where to go next.
OK, standard but (we think) relevant question that everyone asks you every single time you're in town in every single interview ... where are you eating? I tried to go to Slanted Door, but couldn't get in on my first try – but the second time worked. I also went to Spruce last night which was very, very nice. I liked it so much I'm going there again tonight.
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