Leisure: Lost in Translation

Tonight’s party in the atrium of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has not yet begun, and the excitement already is reaching fever pitch. By the doorway a scrum line has formed between several hundred fashionably attired guests anxious to enter and guards determined, for the moment, to keep them out. Inside, the preparty photo session is becoming nasty, as one member of the paparazzi jostles with the others to keep the competition from horning in on the VIP tableaux he so carefully has posed. “Get out of here!” the man from Paris Match yells at a gaggle of camera-wielding rivals. “These are my people. Go find your own.”

The frenzy is understandable, for on this day in early November, after four score years of sprinkling stars across Europe’s culinary landscape, France’s Michelin guide, the world’s most prestigious arbiter of what is in and out in the world of dining, officially has come to New York City. For more than a year, its inspectors have been moving anonymously through Gotham’s bistros and boîtes, taverns and teahouses, sipping wines, mimosas, and Bloody Marys here and nibbling foie gras, sushi, tacos, and dim sum there, before adjourning to compile their findings. Now the advance copies of the guide have arrived, the ratings have been announced, and the gourmet elite are here to commemorate the occasion. Partygoers include such New York celebrity chefs and restaurateurs as Daniel Boulud of Daniel, Alain Ducasse of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges, Thomas Keller of Per Se, and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque. From the United Kingdom, there is Michel Roux, and from France, the legendary Paul Bocuse, the godfather of contemporary French cuisine, as well as the French minister of culture. Here, too, are scores of the restaurants’ most soigné patrons, the international media, and a grab bag of models, actors and actresses, and television hosts and hostesses.


For days the city’s culinary style setters and radio and TV talk shows have been buzzing about the French restaurant-and-hotel guide’s incursion into New York. Why had Le Guide Rouge, as it is known in its homeland, come to the five boroughs? Which, if any, of the city’s restaurants might earn one, two, or even three stars—the highest accolade of all—from the Michelin inspectors? Which restaurants would be overlooked? And most important of all, who cares?


It is not as if New York needed another restaurant guide. After all, this is the media capital of the world. The city already is awash in newsletters, gazettes, pamphlets, books, newspaper columns, radio and TV shows, magazines, web-zines, and blogs devoted to the local culinary scene. And 650,000 New Yorkers already have a copy of Zagat, not to mention a local newspaper, The New York Times, with restaurant reviews that have transformed its own critics into celebrities.

But as Regis Le Sommier, the Paris Match bureau chief, points out, none of these are the Michelin guide, and so none possess the same mystique. “When have you ever heard anyone refer to a restaurant by its Zagat rating?” asks Le Sommier. “When Michelin rates a restaurant, it is known worldwide by its stars.”

There is no denying this point. Yet some New Yorkers were wondering how authoritative the guide could be, given some of the howlers printed on its pages. Among the almost 500 restaurants included in the guide but denied stars is the venerable Four Seasons restaurant; Michelin describes its 2-square-foot pool of white marble and its art by Jackson Pollock and Miró. But as a spokesperson for the restaurant explains, the pool is rather more imposing than that, as it is 196 square feet. A Pollock has not hung on the restaurant’s walls since the 1960s, and there has not been a Miró on display for 10 or 15 years. The guide also recommends the à la carte menu at Le Bernardin, where there is none; the menu is prix fixe. Of Barbalùc, Michelin states, “Sleek best describes the streamlined decor.” No, “gone” describes it better, as Café B displaced Barbalùc several months earlier.

The Michelin guide’s language, no doubt intended to display a command of the Big Apple vernacular, oscillates between cliché and contrived. The review of Canaletto, an Italian neighborhood favorite, for instance, begins with “Attention Bloomingdale’s shoppers.” In describing Michael Jordan’s, the guide quips that the 12-foot-high ceilings “would dwarf even His Airness himself.” Of Lure Fishbar in SoHo, the guide waxes nautical, “Ahoy, mateys.”

But most likely to prompt a chorus of “Fuhgeddaboutit!” from New York’s dining public are the guide’s ratings. Certainly everyone was prepared to see a favorite eatery overlooked or culinary pretentions unjustly rewarded. But how was it possible that of the some 23,000 restaurants and assorted dining establishments in New York, and of the 507 described in the guide, and of the 39 accorded one, two, or three stars, the only ones receiving the highest rank—Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin, Alain Ducasse’s Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Jean Georges, and Thomas Keller’s Per Se—were French? OK, Keller is American-born, but he is French-trained. For that matter, of the eight restaurants with more than one star, only one—Masa—is not French.

“It is a great night for France,” Le Sommier exults gleefully, without a note of irony. Perhaps, but the ratings beg the questions: What were Michelin’s criteria? What were the rules, or were there any?

It is simple, explains the guide’s director, Jean-Luc Naret, as he relaxes in a quiet corner of the Guggenheim atrium, waiting for the doors to swing open. “In judging a restaurant we consider everything: the welcome, the decor, the cleanliness, and the service,” he says, adding that these compose the “comfort level,” which is indicated by symbols of one to five forks and spoons. As for the stars, Michelin awards them only to restaurants with extraordinary food. “The only thing that matters is what is on the plate,” says Naret. “We consider how it is cooked, the taste of each dish, how the personality of the chef is expressed in the presentation, and the consistency of the food throughout the meal.”

It is not true, he says, that for a restaurant to win stars the cuisine has to be over the top, that mashed potatoes must be laden with truffles, or a piece of fish must be heaped with caviar. What, then, is the special something that makes one restaurant “worth a special journey,” as those with three stars are defined? What distinguishes it from a one-star restaurant that is “a very good restaurant in its category,” or from an establishment with no stars? Before Naret can answer, the doors open, and a wave of well-wishers rushes toward him, embracing him and concussing his cheeks with air kisses. But as one three-star chef later assures me, Naret likely would not have offered a satisfactory response to my question. “You can’t understand the Michelin guide if you are American,” Tony Esnault, executive chef at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House says. “You have to be French.”

It is sometimes easy to forget that the culinary arbiter we are talking about originally was designed to sell tires. The French Michelin tire company first published the guide in 1900 as a promotional item, a giveaway to help motorists maintain their cars. It included addresses of gasoline distributors and garages, and directions to public bathrooms, lodging, and places to eat while touring. In 1926, the first star appeared, to designate good cooking. In the 1930s, as motoring became a more complex and luxurious affair, Michelin added two and three stars.


Today, in addition to the New York City guide, Michelin publishes guides for 20 European countries. Each offers advice on hotels as well as restaurants. Like restaurateurs, hoteliers can aspire to a higher level of distinction; five red pavilions indicate an especially pleasant establishment such as the Four Seasons Hotel New York (not to be confused with the restaurant of nearly the same name) or New York’s Mandarin Oriental.


But hotels and restaurants, the twin pillars of the hospitality industry, are dichotomous. The former—especially the most luxurious and amenity laden—often are corporate entities. By contrast, the success and fame of a Michelin-starred restaurant are predicated on the skills, the artistry, and the dedication of one individual: the chef. Thus it is Michelin’s restaurant ratings that have, over the years, made the guide famous while fueling the ascent of so many chefs to stardom—even if its authority is rooted in inscrutability.

In 2005, the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration published the findings from a 10-year study of 36 European restaurants with two to three stars and the parameters within which they operated. The researchers found that the glamour of the world of Michelin belies the reality. “To those outside the high-end restaurant sector,” the study begins, “the Michelin rating system may appear unaccountably vague.”

According to Michelin, this is its way of encouraging originality and creativity while avoiding standardization. Yet, the study concludes, the net effect is to propagate a money-is-no-object culture. “Just to be considered,” wrote the researchers, “requires a substantial investment in real estate, hiring high-quality personnel, use of first-rate ingredients, and securing extensive and expensive wines.” All of this expense, of course, does not guarantee a reward.

On the other hand, if you, the Michelin hopeful, understood the full consequences of the Michelin system, you might decide to forgo it altogether. For some chefs, the Cornell study found, the thrill of gaining a Michelin star soon gives way to the fear of losing it; should that happen, your business may decline by as much as 50 percent. No wonder, according to the study, Michelin chefs worked an average of 100 hours each week. After winning your third star, you may have your own TV show, royalty might call to beg for a table, you are besieged with endorsement deals, and you can raise your prices 20 percent to 30 percent with impunity, but life does not become any easier. Instead, the pressure to excel merely escalates. As one three-star chef told the Cornell researchers, “It is important to be aware that we can only go down. One day it will happen to us.”

Sometimes the pressure can be fatal. In 1966, after learning that his Paris restaurant had lost a Michelin star, chef Alain Zick shot himself. For another, more recent chef, the mere thought of being downgraded was unbearable. The three-star rating Michelin had bestowed on Bernard Loiseau’s La Cote d’Or in Burgundy launched the chef to international stardom. Besides the restaurant, he had TV shows, cookbooks, a line of frozen foods, and bistros in Paris, and he was said to be the most recognized man in France. His success notwithstanding, Loiseau obsessed over his Michelin rating, telling friends that he would commit suicide if he lost a star. He plunged into despond in early February 2003 when an article in Le Figaro suggested that Michelin was going to demote him. When the annual guide appeared a couple of weeks later, it once again accorded Loiseau its highest rating, but he continued to despair, and on February 24, he took his own life.

Fortunately, some chefs take another way out. In 1992, Marc Paesbrugghe, owner of the two-star Sir Anthony Van Dijck in Antwerp, did what no chef in memory had done: He gave back his stars. “I’m very happy now to have my freedom,” he told Robb Report in 1999. By this time, an increasing number of chefs were chafing at the expense of maintaining their Michelin ratings: tables set with only the most costly damask and cutlery, elaborate floral arrangements, cuisine contrived around expensive ingredients and accompanied by rare wines poured into the most delicate stemware.

Last year the exodus from the Michelin system accelerated. In May, Alain Senderens, proprietor of Lucas Carton in Paris, became the first three-star chef to relinquish his rating, while two more chefs—René Judy-Berges of the Relais Sainte-Victoire in Provence and Philippe Gaertner of the Armes de France in Alsace—gave up single stars. In response, Michelin contends that if there is any giving or taking of stars to be done, the guide will do it, for the stars do not belong to a restaurant, but rather they reflect Michelin’s opinion.


While it may be interesting that some chefs have begged out of the Michelin system, it is remarkable that more have not done so. It has been clear since 1996, when Pierre Gagnaire (proprietor of the restaurant of the same name in Saint-Etienne) became the first three-star restaurateur to go bankrupt, that a Michelin ranking no longer guarantees financial success. But more recently, the stars have become a kind of distress signal. For all their prestige, barely half the Michelin-starred restaurants that the Cornell researchers examined were operating at a profit.


Yet despite the sacrifice and stress involved, the glory days of the Michelin chef are far from over. As one chef told researchers, “If I wanted to make money I would have taken the 50 persons employed here and opened 10 pizzerias with five employees in each one.” The Cornell study concludes that the force driving these chefs is not so much economic gain but rather what the researchers call the almost “sacred passion” to run the best restaurants. Of course, in any competition somebody has to keep score, and in the eyes of the world’s leading chefs, the supreme scorekeeper still is Le Guide Michelin.

Therein, says Ducasse’s Esnault, lies the guide’s significance. “Throughout its history the guide has pushed chefs to the next level, to excel,” he explains. “The same thing will happen here in New York. The Michelin will raise the bar.”

Yet not every New York disciple of haute cuisine intends to pull out all the stops in pursuit of another star. “I do not plan to change anything,” says Daniel Boulud. “I have received hundreds of e-mails and letters from my customers saying, ‘Please don’t change.’ ” Boulud is proprietor of the internationally famed Daniel, which Michelin accorded two stars, and Café Boulud, which received one. While most would be thrilled with such accolades, Boulud was disappointed. Indeed, Guggenheim partygoers speculated whether Boulud, whom many critics consider the city’s most talented restaurateur, would snub Michelin’s big night. “Oh, no. I went to the party. I was not going to kill myself,” he says a few days after the event, chuckling over lunch at his third New York restaurant, the stylish DB Bistro Moderne. From the outset, Boulud says, he was skeptical about who might receive three stars. “I think they decided they had four and that was enough. One more might have overspilled the bucket.”

If the next time around he is awarded a third star, that will be fine, Boulud says, but he does not plan to court the Michelin inspectors with anything new. “I’ve seen colleagues in Europe wait so long for a star, and they never get it, and you never know why,” he says. “If they get a third star, they put themselves in such debt they have to do consulting to make ends meet.”


Then, Boulud adds, there is Alain Ducasse, possessor of nine stars for his Louis XV in Monaco and his eponymous restaurants in Paris and now New York. Ducasse seems to have mastered the system, or at least seems to know precisely what the inspectors are looking for. Boulud shrugs. “I prefer not to push the envelope as much as Ducasse,” he says. “There’s a difference between perfect and precious. I’d rather be beautiful and sexy than precious and stuffy.”

Elsewhere in New York, Michelin’s arrival has brought vindication to restaurateur Jean Denoyer. There was never any doubt whether his bistro, La Goulue, was a success; since opening 34 years ago, it had become an institution among Upper East Side socialites. But the critics refused to take his place seriously. One New York Times writer sneered at his clientele, saying it included “long-legged girls with short résumés.” Another writer from the Times, who probably does not speak French, wrote, “This is the kind of upscale French bistro that tastes much better if you speak French.” A New York Post critic wrote, “The food is good enough at La Goulue but it’s the hair that’s fabulous. At lunch some 74 percent of the females are blonde.”

As for the Zagat, it gave La Goulue’s food a rating of 20 on a scale of 30, lower than the Mexican cantina, the teahouse, the bakery, and the trattoria on the same page. Sometimes Denoyer wondered if, perhaps, the charms of his restaurant were wasted on these philistines who did not recognize the authenticity of his restaurant’s pewter bar, antique chairs, and handmade lamps, the pervasive je ne sais quoi. But now life has changed. To be sure, media foodies protested once the Michelin ratings were announced; according to the Los Angeles Times, within an hour of the ratings announcement, Internet bloggers were assailing La Goulue, “a French bistro on the Upper East Side usually mentioned only in the gossip columns.”

But none of that matters any longer, says Denoyer. “A lot of my colleagues are disappointed that they did not get three stars, or two. But I am content. Others have rave reviews from the Times or Zagat. But I have a star from Michelin.”

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