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A Michelin man in new York?

28 July 2005
A Michelin man in new York?

We've all seen King Kong towering over the city of New York. With the launch of its first guide to New York on 15 November, Michelin will be hoping its big, fat tyre man looms large in the minds of the city's chefs.

Jason Atherton, Gordon Ramsay's chef at new Maze restaurant in London, relishes the buzz that Michelin provides. "I love the gossip, all that expectation in the kitchen. Then you pore over the results every January to see who's gone up and who's down."

Chefs can go to extreme lengths in the pursuit of a star. There's the chef who "branded" one of his staff, and another who loaded up a commis with a sack of potatoes so heavy that he ended up in hospital. With luck, New York's top chefs won't react in the same way, but with Michelin, you never know.

Tim Zagat, owner of his eponymous guide, is positive. "We welcome Michelin," he says. "It's great for our city. We're proud and excited. It's going to raise standards here." As the Zagat guide is the most popular in New York, it's big of Zagat to be so generous with his praise. In fact, he echoes the thoughts of many when he asks: "What took them so long?"

What indeed. Michelin has been publishing a guide to hotels and dining since 1900. A Britain and Ireland handbook arrived as early as 1905.

Yet chefs in New York have been cooking outstanding food for at least the past 20 years. David Nicholls, who oversees the food at Foliage, in London, goes further. "New York is the most dynamic city on earth when it comes to eating out. Look at the chefs there now: Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter."

New York isn't the only American city Michelin has its eye on. "I was very surprised when I arrived to find out that we weren't in the USA," says Jean-Luc Naret, 43, head of the guides at Michelin, who took up his position in June last year. "New York was the natural place to start, then we'll look at the rest of the USA and Asia."

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston and Las Vegas are likely to follow, with guides to Shanghai, then Tokyo and Hong Kong being launched on the other side of the globe.

Michelin has tweaked its format just for New Yorkers. It will still use the famous one- to three-star system for 500 restaurants in five boroughs and 50 hotels in Manhattan, but American readers, the Michelin directors have reasoned, will prefer longer descriptions in the New York guide. They could also enjoy the relief of more pictures among the usually text-heavy pages of the Red Book.

These changes, however, may not be enough. It could be argued that Michelin has never really got to grips with London's ethnic restaurant culture, and New York is something different again. For Indian restaurants in London, read steakhouses in New York.

"You can't go to New York without visiting places like the Strip House," says Anthony Demetre, formerly of Putney Bridge restaurant in London. Despite the name, this is a place that deals in cooked rather than exposed flesh. "I went with a chef and he was amazed," Demetre says. "The waiter knew everything about a piece of meat - the breed, the diet, where it came from. The service was outstanding. It would be a shame if the Strip House, WD-50, Gramercy Tavern, or the Union Caf wasn't Michelin's kind of thing."

Early diners Then there are the customers, who behave differently from Europeans. It's an American habit to eat out early. Wall Street bankers sit down to dinner at 5.30 in the evening in Manhattan - and others join them in the winter. "Because of the tall buildings the city can get really dark," says Eric Ripert of New York restaurant Le Bernadine. "People like to eat early and get home. The tourists come in later." This opportunity to turn tables is music to any restaurateur's ears but, as Demetre says, "Michelin is terrified of mass covers. Apart from Nobu and the Square,
it runs a mile from lots of tables."

It would be easier for Michelin to adapt were one of its five inspectors for the 2006 guide a New Yorker, but none is even American. And accusations of bias will hardly be assuaged by the fact that French-born chef Daniel Boulud was chosen to cook for the Michelin top brass when they visited last year. Boulud insists this isn't a sign of things to come. "Being French won't be an advantage for this guide. I truly don't know what they want for three stars, and I don't expect them," he insists.

In fact, the general consensus is that because Michelin knows him so well, Alain Ducasse is best placed at the Essex House. Thomas Keller, of Per Se, seems the other obvious choice for three stars, especially as a Michelin spokesman said an American chef is due to be rewarded.

Some believe the way Michelin operates, by keeping people stewing in anticipation, may not go down so well with New Yorkers. "Michelin will be derided and then ignored if there are no three-star restaurants," according to New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "Americans don't wait a year - even instant gratification takes too long for them. If the guide says: ‘Here's one star, work really hard for three years,' we'll say: ‘No, thank you.'"

New York Times restaurant reporter Florence Fabricant believes locals would feel offended rather than indifferent: "It will be a slap in the face if they give stingy one or two stars here and there. Even three may not be enough as, thanks to our system of rating at the New York Times, Americans are trained to think of four stars as the pinnacle."

Something will have to give, whether it's Michelin's strict standards, or New York's busy restaurant culture. It's hard to see why chefs making decent profits out of their particular way of fine dining should change for a guidebook. "The thing you notice about New York restaurants is that they're busy - and I mean really busy," Demetre says. "There's a buzz about them. Dining rooms are full. It's because chefs there are so focused. They care about covers more than guidebooks or making the perfect dish."

Breaking even? On the other hand Michelin isn't all that bothered about bottom-line sales of the guide. Naret has admitted that as a whole the Red Book division barely breaks even. According to Trevor Gulliver, owner of St John restaurant in London, there's only one reason for the guide and it's nothing to do with restaurants. "Michelin exists as PR for the motoring division. Ask anyone if they own a Red Guide to Great Britain. They won't - no one does, but they keep on publishing it. That speaks for itself. They're just in the USA to sell more tyres."

If the guides are there to act as publicity, however, they'll have some work to do after last month's American Formula One Grand Prix. Flaws were found on Michelin wheels, so only three teams started the race. This should make for a tough introduction to a new market, but Michelin is looking to the long term with the Red Guide. Naret won't worry if a few New York chefs kick up a fuss at not being awarded enough stars. In fact, he's likely to welcome the publicity.

WD-50 - A chefs' favourite

Anthony Demetre, former co-owner of Putney Bridge, London

"When WD-50 started up, the Lower East Side was a cross between Brixton, Toxteth and Handsworth. There's still the graffiti and it looks like a café, but the food at WD-50 is outstanding. It's like Heston's, but not so extreme."

Jason Atherton, chef-patron, Maze, London

"We got out of the taxi at WD-50 and assumed it was the wrong place. It looked nothing like a high-class restaurant, more an American diner. After checking it out, we went in, and the food is sensational. It's part of how different New York is to London; you need to readjust when you go there."

Who's up for stars?

Tim Zagat

"Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert are likely to statisfy the inspectors. Per Se and Essex House also have a good chance. Ducasse is going a great job here."

Clark Wolf, restaurant consultant

"Two to watch are Keller, who's top of the American chef game, and Ducasse. Eric Ripert will also benefit."

Florence Fabricant, restaurant reporter, New York Times

"I can't see beyond Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. He really dominates this city."

Trevor Gulliver, owner, St John

"They'll give them to a load of chefs with French names, like Jean-Georges or Daniel Boulud. Thomas Keller might do well, because one of his restaurants is called the French Laundry."

Jason Atherton, chef-patron, Maze

"Jean-Georges, Daniel Boulud and Thoams Keller have a lot more to lose than Tom Colicchio at Gramercy, because they're seen in America as three-star chefs already. Jean-Georges has a good chance and Keller, plus Ducasse, will do well.

David Nicolls, executive chef, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park

"Keller and Trotter. I hope they recognise Ducasse because he's truly world class. Gramercy Tavern will get a star too."

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