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New York's Michelin guide stirs transatlantic passions

17 November 2005
New York's Michelin guide stirs transatlantic passions

Michelin always seems to court controversy, and its debut in New York seems to have been no different. The guide confirms the city's culinary muscle by ranking New York second behind Paris and ahead of London in terms of the number of Michelin stars awarded to its restaurants. However, it seems that on both sides of the Atlantic the ratings have stirred up debate.

Of the 51 stars awarded in New York no fewer than four restaurants have been given a three-star rating. London has a total of 41 stars and has a solitary three-star venue: Gordon Ramsay on Hospital Road.

For us Brits, the annual doling out of Michelin stars is always an emotional affair - particularly among chefs - but despite its remarkable first-time showing, the vibes coming out of New York are resoundingly mixed.

"I'll be honest: it wasn't so exhilarating to get a star," says Richie Notar, managing partner at Nobu. "We were pleased to get it in London, but over here it doesn't have the credibility."

A more judicious Wylie Dufresne, one-starred chef of the ground-breaking WD-50, says he likes the idea of being reviewed every year as it will "raise the bar".

The truth is, however, that Americans are used to online foodie sites or guides such as Zagat, which rely on the public's vote rather than the decision of an inspector.

Tim Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat Survey, which sells more than 650,000 copies of its New York guide annually, says he welcomes the new competition, but believes the Zagat system is better.

"Our ratings and reviews are based on the collective dining experiences of 31,000 restaurant-savvy New Yorkers who live, work and dine here every single day, which is why people find them so reliable."

This chimes with Notar, who is dismissive of Michelin's check list for white cloths and silver service. "This is not what New York is all about. It's about heart and soul," he says.

The gripe starts with New York's four three-star restaurants - Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges, Le Bernardin and Per Se. The fact that they all serve French cuisine has been seized on by critics in the USA who claim the guide fails to reflect the rich culinary diversity of the city - nor does it reflect culinary trends.

"It seems like the cuisines of the East and Far East could have received more attention, although they were not completely overlooked," says Dufresne.

Notar is more cutting. "Silver-service French food is passé," he says. "It's done well, but it's boring."

It frustrates him that Michelin can still rank Paris as leading the culinary world. "It makes no sense, so it gives the guide less credibility. London and New York are hand-in-hand in leading the culinary world," he says.

Swiss-born chef Gray Kunz of Café Gray, which was also awarded one star, agrees that it is essentially a French guide with its own judging criteria. "London and New York will continue to provide diversity, excitement and new things," says Kunz.

The American public, meanwhile, is confused about Michelin's rating system. While London chefs may have choked on their croûtons at the number of three-stars awarded, reports suggest there was some surprise Stateside that restaurants such as Bouley and Daniel were awarded only two stars.

In contrast, for example, the New York Times had given Daniel, run by chef Daniel Boulud, its top rating of four stars, while Zagat ranked both restaurants in its highest category alongside Michelin's three-star venues Per Se and Le Bernardin.

Ironically, from the European perspective, Michelin has reduced its credibility by giving stars away too freely. While chefs in Europe have had to work up to two or three stars through talent and consistency, it seems the New Yorkers have been granted top accolades without a struggle.

According to David Nicholls, executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental in London, Michelin could have heightened the anticipation and credibility of the New York guide by giving all selected restaurants one star this year and challenging them to work up to three stars. Instead, he says, they went for "crash and burn".

"I don't know anyone here who has gone from nought to three stars. Gordon Ramsay, Philip Howard, Tom Aikens - they all started with one star. Raymond Blanc still has two stars. It must be very difficult for these guys to see their counterparts come straight in with three stars," says Nicholls.

So what next? Michelin confirms that its inspectors will be marching on San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston and Las Vegas either next year or in 2007 and it will also be looking to export the guide to Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

According to Notar, it might be a rough ride. "I don't think Americans will want it. You can't tell me that LA will give a damn about Michelin stars," he says.

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