Jean-Luc Naret is the public face of Michelin and the man navigating Les Guides Rouges into the 21st century
Jean-Luc Naret has the perfect poker face.
Sat in the lounge of Lanesborough hotel, the week before the announcement of this year's Great Britain and Ireland Michelin results, his well-tanned pout is giving little away. The sixth director of the Michelin Guide since its birth in 1900 won't respond to the as it turns out unfounded rumours that the UK is about to gain a fourth three star rated restaurant.
He won't even confirm the less controversial matter that Michelin's first Asian guide – the details of which will be announced come March – will tackle Tokyo.
Then again, any hidden desire that he might have to be even gently indiscreet is probably tempered by the presence of the neat little Michelin mandarin who, scribbling furiously beside us, appears to be taking down every single word we say.
Naret, now in the third year of his reign, has already overseen an ambitious period of expansion and modernisation that has seen the ‘Guide Rouge' reach beyond Europe for the first time, with the launch of two new US city guides for New York and San Francisco, the delivery of a much-improved web presence and the availability of their restaurant and hotel selections via GPS in cars and through mobile phones.
Whilst embracing technology is no doubt helping the guide shed its stuffy Old World image, the most significant of these developments has been addressing the States.
"When I took over three years ago I was surprised that, although we were based in Europe, we'd never crossed the Atlantic,"
explains Naret. "My first thing, after I'd toured around Europe and seen everything was fine, was to make the move to the States. Straight away I wanted to find out if we could have the same sort of success there with the guide that we'd already established in Europe."
In its 107-year history the Michelin Guide has grown into such a potent brand in its own right that it's occasionally easy to forget that it began as no more than a promotional tool to sell tyres. When Naret announced his plans to the company to launch the guide in the US he kept this is mind. "Michelin is a global company and we have a presence in 73 countries with our tyres," he says. "I had to ask ‘Why are we not in the States when it's about 50 per cent of the market for us in terms of tyres?'"
Unlike Derek Brown, his British predecessor in the role, Naret's experience comes not as an inspector but in luxury resort management, most notably topping up his tan at Le Saint- Géran in Mauritius and Sandy Lane in Barbados.
When Michelin came calling he was working for the Aga Khan.
When asked if he finds his lack of experience as an inspector a disadvantage, he flashes a smile.
"It's an advantage," he says. "It's an advantage because I don't like to report." He pauses.
"I don't influence the decision making of the awards process. To be an inspector you need to be anonymous and from the beginning it was agreed that I was going to be a public face. I will go to restaurants and I will be recognised so I'm not going to file reports and I don't want to influence the judgement of the others. I do actually participate in all of the star meetings across the world. The only thing that could happen is, if I personally know a restaurant and I'm not comfortable with a decision, I might suggest making another inspection. But so far that's never happened in the UK."
As that public face, Naret has made it his goal to attempt to demystify Michelin's machinations through an orchestrated international PR offensive. The Great Britain and Ireland guide is traditionally announced by a press release from Michelin in Stoke-on-Trent, not by personal appearances from le director.
"What I've been trying to do in the three years since I took over was actually to give more… I wouldn't say presence in the media… but to simply say this is how we do things," he says.
"Because there are still a lot of misconceptions about what you have to do to get a Michelin star, even in France. You see restaurants getting a Michelin star and then, because we never in the past said exactly what we were looking for, there was this confusion and they think they have to invest in the restaurant – the cutlery, a doorman and everything else. We now try to explain that the stars really are on the plate because people go somewhere for the food, the cutlery doesn't make people go to restaurants."
He argues that the inevitable escalation in luxury that accompanies many Michelin-rated restaurants as they attempt to climb their way to three stars is about chefs and restaurateurs "putting more pressure on themselves because they want the best of everything, flowers, decoration… it's about them wanting to create a better experience for their customers, not about us telling them that's what they need to do."
The misunderstanding, he insists, comes from a confusion between the guide's star rating and ‘couverts' (comfort) rating, the latter represented in the guides by one to five sets of crossed spoons and forks and ranging from ‘quite comfortable' to ‘luxury in the traditional style'.
"The stars are always on the plate," he says, reiterating what in recent years has become a Michelin catchphrase, "And what we're looking for is the choice of ingredients, how they are cooked, how the flavours are kept, consistency across the whole of the menu and the style of the chef in the kitchen."
He's equally keen to point out that "We're not doing guides to please chefs – our objective is always to improve the selection for our readers and the only thing we have in mind when we produce our guide is our readers."
Taking the guide to America signalled a change of direction for Michelin in more ways than one. In addition to announcing their global ambitions to make Michelin, as Naret later puts it, "the international standard of reference for restaurants", it introduced its readers to the concept of the Michelin city guide.
"We'd never been to the United States, and so we said ‘let's not try to cover it in the same way that we try to cover the UK, France etc,'" he explains. "That would have taken us years and years just to produce just one guide and would have been very costly because we're dealing with a country so much bigger than Europe itself. So we needed to target things differently when we went to New York."
The 2006 New York guide, which appeared at the end of 2005, was all very ‘new' Michelin and featured area profiles, longer, chattier reviews and even recipes from the chefs. This format has become the template for further city guides – San Francisco appeared in late autumn alongside the second New York edition, and this year sees the appearance of London and Paris guides published simultaneously alongside their respective country guides, in the same mould. Although a London Michelin guide has appeared in previous years it was basically a cut ‘n' paste job culled from the Great Britain and Ireland Guide and nothing more.
"Things are moving so fast now, people are looking at a different style of guide," says Naret.
"The red country guide, the bibles, will remain how they are, but there will be more city guides in the style of what we first did in New York.
Historically the Michelin guide was universal with its pictograms. We only discovered that you could put some words together and make a sentence in 2000 in France, and in 2003 in the other countries. So we've come a long way from pictograms to 2- 3 lines of text to half a page,"
he pauses for effect, "In the past we have always moved slowly."
Although, under Naret, things have definitely been moving faster, further guides will only appear in cities where certain criteria have been met. "It's a simple recipe, you need two things, the right restaurant environment with enough good restaurants to be included in the guide and you need enough people living there that are going to buy the guide," he explains. "There are many cities around the world who say they'd be delighted to have Michelin guide, but we currently can't consider them because they don't have one of those two things."
Meanwhile, the charges of French culinary imperialism levelled at Michelin have never gone away and, predictably, surfaced again when they launched in the US.
"Look, in France we're French but in Italy we're Italian and in Spain we're Spanish," he argues, pointing out that once a guide is established in a country, French control is relinquished.
"Now, in the States, we're American, 80 per cent of the team, eight out of ten of the inspectors we currently have are American. When we look at a new city in Asia we'll do exactly the same thing.
We are right now recruiting in Asia for inspectors for the Asian guide and they'll be under our development for two to three years and then, as we have done in other countries where we have guides, we will leave them alone."
Naret points out that in the inclusive spirit of new Michelin the French guide, along with the new Paris guide, will be translated into English for the first time in its history. To further embrace this new way of thinking I ask if he can imagine a day when a country other than France could have the most Michelin stars. He answers with a big wide smile and a "Might be soon" but for the first time I can tell he's bluffing.
BURNING RUBBER MICHELIN'S MOVES
1900 André Michelin publishes the first edition of the guide to France as a promotional gift.
1911 First Michelin Guide to the British Isles (including Ireland) is published.
1922 Production resumes after WWI with the title changed to Great Britain with Ireland no longer included.
1974 The Great Britain & Ireland Guide is relaunched and has been published every year since.
1982 Le Gavroche is made the first 3 Star restaurant in Britain.
1995 Bib Gourmand symbol introduced.
1999 Michelin's ‘Eating Out in Pubs' published.
2000 Text introduced to the guide for the first time in addition to symbols to describe establishments.
2006 Rising Stars category introduced to highlight restaurants with future potential.
2007 New look Michelin London guide is launched.
MICHELIN GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND RESULTS 2007
WITH COMMENTS FROM EDITOR DEREK BULMER
- The Harrow, Marlborough, Wiltshire
- The Abbey, Penzance, Cornwall
- Seaham Hall, Seaham, Durham
- Christophe, Guernsey @ Fermain Bay
- Atlantic, Jersey @ La Pulente SCOTLAND
- Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae, South Ayrshire
- The Kitchin, Edinburgh
- The Crown at Whitebrook, Monmouth
- La Noisette, Chelsea
- Benares, Mayfair
- Arbutus, Soho
- L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Covent Garden
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
- Chapter One, Dublin
- Vineyard, Newbury, Berkshire LONDON
- Pétrus, Belgravia
RISING STARS ONE STAR
- Fraiche, Birkenhead, Mersey
- West Stoke, Chichester, West Sussex
- Cotswold House, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
- Devon Combe House, Honiton
- St Martin's on the Isle, Scilly Isles
- Linen Room, Dumfries
- Abstract (at Glenmoriston Town House H.), Inverness
- Galvin at Windows, Mayfair
RISING STARS TWO STARS
- Foliage (Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park H.), Knightsbridge
Derek Bulmer, Editor of the Great Britain and Ireland guide on this year's results
"It's been an exceptionally good year for London because we've seen more restaurants open than in most years, and so the actual number of entries has increased by something like 70 or 80, which is a large increase. The fact that we have more stars than ever before reflects the fact that the cooking is better than ever before and there are more restaurants to pick from than there ever were.
It's a fantastic story for London; it really underlines the fact that it is one of the gastronomic capitals of the world and that there is perhaps more choice and diversity here than there is anywhere else.
When you think there are 122 stars in the GB and Ireland guide and 43 of them are in London, it's a large percentage, and perhaps shows the increasing divide between London and elsewhere.
But London is where the people that can support these sort of restaurants live."
On the two new two stars "Marcus Wareing at Petrus has been near for four or five years and it's a question of finding the consistency that we look for. These decisions aren't over a short period of time we've been seriously looking at him over the last couple of years. It time to say this is a two star restaurant that it needs promoting and the same with John Campbell at the Vineyard. They've raised their game and the standard of what they are producing consistently."
On Anthony Demetre and Arbutus getting a star "A complete change of style for him – it's much simpler than what he was doing at Putney Bridge, but the flavours are still fantastic and come through in the cooking, and it's every bit as good."
On Gildleigh Park retaining it two stars after being closed for most of 2006 It was based on the history and reputation of Gidleigh Park as establishment and Michael Caines and taken on trust. It wasn't taken lightly, we had a lot of discussion as it's a very unusual situation.
On Atul Kochhar at Benares getting a star "He's done a lot for Indian cooking in this country, and I was disappointed when he moved from Tamarind that he didn't take the star with him immediately.
He's doing a super job now, and has got that consistency that was missing before."
On Tom Kitchin at Kitchin in Edinburgh getting a star "It's in the style of Arbutus, simple, but with great flavours and good pricing. That's the way forward as far as I'm concerned."