We had the opportunity to sit down with Jean-Luc Naret, shortly after the release of the Chicago guide. He is one of the most influential people in the food world, and we were very excited to hear what he had to say about the guide, the departure of Laurant Gras, and the role of food blogs… Below is our interview… enjoy!
Chicago Fare: Why did it take so long for Michelin to come to the United States?
Jean-Luc Naret: We started in France and went across Europe for more than 100 years. I took over the committee 7 years ago and actually asked myself that same question. Why the Michelin Guide had never been outside Europe. I think mostly because, from Europe, we only had done European Guides, and we used to do country guides. So when you do the United States if you look at the country, obviously, it would take years and years to do, and a millions dollars to put together. So I looked at it a different way, I said why aren’t we actually going there and creating a different sort of guide… a selection for a city, and thats exactly what we’ve done… and I came 6 years ago to New York and started to really look at how we could design the best guide. So we designed exactly this guide you have for New York, then San Francisco, LA, and Chicago. I think we went very fast since we’ve been in the United States. It is the fifth edition of San Francisco, the sixth edition of New York, and first edition of Chicago, and definitely more to come… But our inspectors are off this week; they will be back next week and start to evaluate the restaurants for next year.
Chicago Fare: Wow… that’s quick.
Jean-Luc Naret: It’s really an annual selection… And as soon as the guide is out, we try to give them a week off, and then we start again with the selection. A lot of restaurants just opened, such as Henri and Avec, as an example, that we had a chance to taste before, but that we could not taste again because of the fire… and we couldn’t include in the guide. For the next year, we will try to see what is new, what could be added to the selection, and what, with existing restaurants in the guide, has the potential for stars. There are quite a few restaurants that didn’t make it this year, that will make it next year.
Chicago Fare: When the Michelin Inspectors go to the restaurants, what is their criteria for a consistent restaurant?
Jean-Luc Naret: The first thing is that they look at the restaurant like a regular guest. They look at the ambiance, the decor, the service, whether they’ve been welcomed, the way they’ve been treated, and after they look in the plate. The ingredients, if the chef mastered the flavors, if he made sure the ingredients are perfectly cooked, if there is too much flavor, or not enough. They are really looking at the consistency across the menu. You could have a great signature dish, but you have to be very good on everything you offer. Then the inspectors rank everything dish by dish, and explain exactly why it should be returned to, not to be returned, a bib gourmand, or 1 ,2 , or 3 stars, and we do that for every dish and then an inspector will come later in the year and follow it again.
Chicago Fare: How many inspections are completed?
Jean-Luc Naret: We have multiple inspections, every restaurant in the guide has been seen twice. But in the case of the Michelin Stars, of course, it has been seen more than twice because we make sure. For example, as in the case of Grant, we went 10 times to Alinea, to measure consistency… and for 10 times it was 3 stars, from top to bottom it was fantastic, but its really just a matter of consistency, you just really have to be consistent.
Chicago Fare: What about Chicago? There are a lot of cities you could have gone to…
Jean-Luc Naret: We knew when we started in New York, and actually I came here before New York, to tell you the truth. I came here because at that time I didn’t know whether I was going to acquire a new committee or to start from scratch. So I came here, and actually stayed here in Chicago, 7 years ago. At that time Graham Elliott used to be the chef here [The Peninsula Hotel], and so actually, in a week, I started to evaluate the restaurants here and I was like wow… I was quite amazed with the potential, but New York was the right place to start. Then the next year we did San Francisco, and then the year after we should have done Chicago. But because we already had a team in California, we thought lets do LA, and then because of the recession we said, maybe we should wait a bit… And I know every year Chicago was coming to us, saying “Well… when are you going to come?” And that’s it! We came 2 years ago and we definitely had a great selection for the past 18 months.
Chicago Fare: What’s next? What is the next city?
Jean-Luc Naret: Well there is definitely a lot of new cities, there is plan of developing at least a new city every year or two. There is some great potential in the US, and great potential in North America and in South America too, you see, I see America as a whole. Now on the otherside we have Asia… I’m on my way to Hong Kong next week, and we did Kyoto months ago, our 2nd edition. And Tokyo will be our 4th edition, and we have Hong Kong’s 3rd edition. And there will be a new city that we will announce as well. Europe first, Asia, then Australia and we could even go to the otherside to India. I’ve been to India, I think there is great potential there, but we will see what exactly will happen. There is a lot of development, a great plan of development, I saw that seven years ago and I’m very happy that some other people will continue to carry on the flags around the world with Michelin.
Chicago Fare: What kind of effect do you think the Michelin Guide will have on Chicago?
Jean-Luc Naret: [We] definitely create, I mean everytime we come to a new city, we create a lot of noise, and a lady last night said you put a big storm on Chicago for the past few months. Everyone was trying to evaluate, trying to see, and speculate about who was going to get stars and everything. You know the Michelin Star is an important factor, but is not the most important factor. People are are not buying the guide for a Michelin Star. Its easy, you could just look at well… Yelp. Or… any other place and you will see that. We are really well known around the world for the Michelin Stars, but really the people in the city are really buying the guide for all the other reasons, for all the restaurants under $25, the restaurants of Bib Gourmand, for everything that is selected. Its really difficult to pick the right restaurants, and we really make a selection of… in our point of view, the 342 best restaurants in the city. And this will definitely continue to grow. So next year I’m sure there will be more restaurants in the guide because we are going deeper and wider, and I’m sure there are restaurants that didn’t make it this year that will definitely make it next year because they will improve. We are going to widen the selection… we are going a bit more to the suburbs as we started to do, but we really will concentrate on the city of Chicago, so we will go north, west, south and we can’t go east cause of the lake… but we will go to all the other parts and create. And what we have seen is the level of gastronomy improve… because, its interesting, we are not local… we’re not a national company, I mean we are in America, but the point of view is global, people tend to see us as the only developed benchmark, so they measure against each other, and obviously everyone in Chicago is very proud, and now the thing is… how can we beat San Francisco and how can we beat New York? So I’m sure the level of creativity will improve. What you can see here is the difference between creativity and avant guarde cuisine on one side and the other side is very incredible good restaurants with hotdogs, pizza, and a basic food in a sense, but done in a very nice way that make this city, a restaurant destination. It is definitely why the Michelin Guide was brought here and this is the reason that we will see in the coming years more and more restaurants in the Michelin Guide and more and more stars.
Chicago Fare: Do you prefer Chicago Deep Dish Pizza, or Chicago Style HotDog? Or Both?
Jean-Luc Naret: Well actually I like both, but actually… this week I was not able to eat either of those, I only ate tacos at Big Star, I love Big Star. And yesterday I went to Mexique which was fun and last night we went to Publican. So lunchtime, I will try to do that today. I only spend a few days here at a time, so its always a pleasure to be here, and my inspectors just make sure I go to certain places that they know I will like, because I follow their advice as well.
Chicago Fare: Did you know what was going on with L20 before you announced the stars?
Jean-Luc Naret: We didn’t know, of course, but at the same time, you know, we aren’t looking at who’s behind the stove, we’re looking at what’s in the plate… but it was really based on the inspectors who had been their a couple of times. I went, personally myself, twice. Once, Laurent was cooking, and the other time he was not cooking. For me it was at the same level. Obviously it’s never good when a chef is leaving, because the team might start changing, but this restaurant will be evaluated very, very soon, and then we will see next year if they maintain the level to maintain the 3 stars, or if they don’t maintain the stars.
Chicago Fare: We heard you’re leaving...
Jean-Luc Naret: Absolutely, I’m thinking at the end of the year. I am retiring, its nice to retire about fifty. I’m turning 49 so I will be 50 next year, but I mean… retiring means doing something different. I have been doing that [directing the michelin guide] for seven years and I had great past 7 years of my life. And before that I used to be a hotelier for 20 years. I decided to take this over 7 years ago and I said I would do it for a span of 3-5 years, and I’ve done it for 7 years, so I have two years extra. And now I’m ready for a new a challenge. It should be fun.
Chicago Fare: Where do you see blogs, yelp, and all these different sources of food information fit in?
Jean-Luc Naret: The more people that are talking about food the better it is, because we are all about one specific thing. We are saying… how can we make sure that people like going to restaurants more, talking about restaurants, talking about food, and having more channels doing it, like the Food Network, Iron Chef, Top Chef, Master Chefs. There are a lot of things around the world where people tend to focus more on food now and the more we are the better it is. I imagine a food blog is like a food review… or food critic. Someone you follow. So if people are listening to your advice and if they like your advice they will follow you, if they don’t like your advice they will follow someone else. Because that is your personal point of view. That is one side…. critics, bloggers, and then on the other side you have yelp… and that is everyone’s opinion and then in the middle is Michelin…We are really saying, we have different inspectors, that go at different times. They aren’t food reviewers, they aren’t bloggers, they are people who love and are passionate about food and the only thing is we give the advice, but we have multiple inspectors and inspections… and each has different opinions but they are all helping make a Michelin selection. But there is no one that could replace another…. The more we are the better it is.
Chicagofare: Is Michelin trying to incorporate the Internet?
Jean-Luc Naret: Actually we do… In Europe we are doing a lot, but we haven’t done this here yet. In Europe we have an application on the I-phone, we are everywhere with viaMichelin.com, a great website, and the selections are available in 6-7 different languages. We do the same in Japan, but a different format with maps, and here we are starting to see what will be the future for digital. Today we are selling books, but it could be that we aren’t selling books in 10 years, we have to find how we will provide selections differently.