Rating the Michelin Guide
Can the once-revered restaurant bible become relevant again?
In the Paris banlieue of Boulogne-Billancourt, in an unprepossessing dark stone building, a French institution has a new address. The Guide Michelin had for decades been headquartered in the ultra-smart 7th arrondissement. But a few months ago, it packed up and moved out of Avenue de Breteuil, one of the most elegant streets in Paris, with its lawns, lime trees and direct view of the golden dome of the Hôtel des Invalides.
On the short walk from the Metro station to the new suburban office, I saw a small boy urinating in the street amid piles of rubbish, in the shadows of several grim-looking blocks of flats. It may have been unfortunate timing but it was difficult not to feel sympathy for the staff of the venerable "red book"—which remains, after more than a century of handing out and taking away good food stars, the arbiter of gastronomic excellence in France and beyond.
One person who won't be visiting this new address is Jean-Luc Naret, who quit as director of the Guide Michelin in December. It's almost impossible to imagine this flamboyant globetrotter making the trip every morning across the Parisian "frontier" of the périphérique ring road.
Naret himself says that his former co-workers at the world's oldest restaurant guide are "not happy" about the relocation. In his first interview since leaving the publisher, he says he understands the necessity of the belt-tightening imposed by senior managers at Michelin, the tyre-maker that owns the loss-making guide. But he stresses that "obviously nobody is happy to leave a beautiful building in the 7th and to move outside Paris".
Indeed it is in the smart centre of Paris that the company's secretive network of restaurant inspectors typically operates, sampling the fastidious, some say fussy, food associated with Michelin stars. Many food critics grumble that this heavily stylized cuisine is outmoded. François Simon of Le Figaro, France's most feared food critic, says: "For me it is something from another century. It goes back to a time when everybody was obeying the rules and the bourgeoisie. But today things are so different, that approach is really over." He adds that "every time they make an award it doesn't mean anything to me. I say, well, that's interesting from a marketing point of view, but that's it. Today people consider the table a place where they want to feel at ease, to be self-indulgent, to have sexy people, to have good food, life and interesting things. But not these very serious dishes and all those boring things. Each time I see a Michelin star in a small town I say, well, that's a boring place, and it always is."
Nevertheless, the award of Michelin stars can add up to 30 per cent to takings, according to restaurant owners. The wealth just isn't shared by the Guide Michelin, which is hemorrhaging more than €15m annually. Accenture, the consultancy firm, was brought in last year and issued a dire warning: the company needed to change rapidly or risk becoming a forgotten relic in the digital age. A year later, Michelin is still pondering what to do. And seven months after Naret's departure, it has yet to announce a new editorial director.
Michelin & Co was founded in 1889 by brothers André and Edouard Michelin, in the Auvergne region of central France. In 1900, the first Michelin guide was launched when it was handed out to chauffeurs of some of the 3,500 cars then on the road in France.
The company remained a staunchly family affair into the 21st century. But adding to current anxiety surrounding the "red book" is the fact that an outsider, Jean-Dominique Senard, is about to take the helm of the parent company for the first time. There are murmurs about the family's displeasure with the tougher financial line being proposed for the guides, though their influence is not what it once was.
For Naret and others it is inevitable that Senard, a finance man to boot, could not share the family's strength of feeling about the guide, which has been the recipient of unquestioned largesse in recognition of the publicity it brings to what one insider describes as a "boring old tyre company", but also in recognition of the fierce protectiveness shown by the family toward their gastronomic "jewel".
"There's an awful lot of pride amongst the Michelin family," says Peter Harden of the eponymous UK restaurant guide. "The red book transformed them into a pillar of the French community at a cultural level rather than merely an industrial one."
The Michelin insider agrees, saying the guide, which is bought by more than 1 million people in its various international guises each year, "is bigger than any person, it's a national treasure".
But some wonder whether the management team running the tyre company has the same devotion to culinary excellence as the younger Edouard Michelin, the last holder of the famous surname to run the firm. Great-grandson and namesake of the co-founder, Edouard drowned in a fishing accident off the coast of Brittany in 2006 at the age of 42.
For Naret, who was recruited by Edouard after decades working in the hotel industry, this tragedy has fundamentally altered the relationship between the tyre company and the guide. "There is no Edouard Michelin any more," he says. "His secret dream, he told me many times, was that he wanted to be an inspector … he was really passionate about food, passionate about restaurants, we used to talk about gastronomy all the time.
James Boxell is the FT's Paris correspondent.