The Michelin/Visit California Guide Rush
A Brief History of Guide Michelin’s Management
“The Michelin Guide is approaching the assessment of California restaurants the way it has in other locations around the world for decades – with unrivaled integrity, independence and expertise. The partnership does not allow Visit California any say in which restaurants will be assessed or what the outcomes of the assessments will be.”
Such were the words of the director of Visit California (the non-profit tourism marketing organization) Caroline Beteta as she announced an agreement with Michelin Travel Partner (“Michelin”) to publish a restaurant guide to California to add coverage to what was Michelin’s guide to San Francisco. The guide adds Los Angeles, Orange County, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sacramento and San Diego restaurants. The renewable agreement is for one year with Visit California paying $600,000, ostensibly for additional inspectors.
With pronouncements vouching for Michelin’s “unrivaled integrity, independence, and expertise”, Beteta was apparently unaware of, wasn’t in a position to know about, or chose to ignore, events in Michelin’s recent history that created the transformation of the Michelin Guides from an unbiased source of rectitude, inscrutability, deliberateness, and discretion to one that has refashioned itself in the digital age by engaging in commercial ventures and activities as the sales of its guidebooks have fallen. This has turned Michelin into a debt-ridden, mismanaged enterprise that relies on the restaurants that it rates to realize revenue and that is more interested in being part of the culinary media circus instead of adapting to the present in ways that mostly preserve the qualities that it once had. This transition began following the departure in 2003 of Derek Brown, who was replaced by Jean-Luc Naret as the International Director of the Michelin Guides. Naret’s seven-year tenure was marked by conflicts of interest; the beginning of commercializing the guides; and turning chefs into sources of revenue. A former member of the Michelin Corporation Executive Committee who had intimate knowledge of the Naret period remarked that a period of corruption ended with Naret’s departure.
In 2007, Naret began commercializing practices by breaking the taboo of never permitting restaurants in the guide to indicate that they are in it. He offered restaurants the opportunity to buy small posters and decals to display in the restaurant and the front door. Jean-Claude Vrignat, the beloved owner of the Paris institution Restaurant Taillevent, published on his blog the obsequious and subtly coercive letter he received from Naret, followed by this reply:
“You have turned over to an outside company the managing of these decals in order, according to your form letter, to guarantee the (restaurant’s) independence of choice. I congratulate you! But when your inspectors come to visit our restaurants, they will clearly see the presence or absence of this sign of recognition. What will their reaction be towards those who don’t accept your friendly proposal”?
In the same year, Michelin joined forces with the French gift-certificate-in-a-box company Wonderbox to offer a variety of meals at modest to expensive restaurants. It has attracted a large number of participants, now about 325 in Paris alone. You can purchase the smiling Bibendum “coffret” from a participating restaurant’s website. The participation by the restaurants is a bad deal for them as 30% of the price of the meal goes to Wonderbox which, in turn pays a percentage to Michelin and large chain stores that may have sold the box.
Naret had no qualms about engaging in corporate nepotism by using Michelin Guide chefs to benefit his family. In 2008, his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Colette Poupon of the mustard dynasty started a consulting agency for chefs named “Co & Cie” whose best-known client and face of the agency was Joël Robuchon, thereby creating a situation in which the wife uses the husband’s position of doling out stars to obtain what were apparently numerous clients. Of lesser magnitude, but still a situation that insures a chef from being downgraded, Naret’s son Thomas was taken in by Alain Ducasse to be a food and beverage management stagière at La Bastide de Moustiers in Provence.
In 2011, Naret was replaced as head of the guides by the well-regarded American Michael Ellis. In following the advice of the management consultant firm Accenture to expand into related on-line services, Michelin acquired in January of 2016 the London-based Bookatable, a platform for accepting and managing reservations and configuring tables; tracking customers throughout their meals; noting clients’ preferences; and more. Michelin charges restaurants a monthly subscription for its Bookatable program of 49, 59 or 99 euros a month, depending on which package a restaurant chooses, as well as two euros for each person in a reservation party. Not subscribing has its consequences for chefs, as you can read below.
After an otherwise ethically uneventful period of six years other than in Asia (see the addendum for examples of corruption and influence-peddling there) Michelin hired Alexandre Taisne in April of 2017 to oversee strategy and development of gastronomy and tourism. Later one would learn that Taisne took liberties with his resumé. His Paris art gallery Toast did become just that. He claimed there were other Toast galleries where there weren’t any according to official registries of commerce. He also falsely claimed to have launched Groupon France, which was actually created by the German company Rocket Internet. In April of 2018, Taisne replaced the retiring Claire Dorlan-Clauzel as director of Gastronomic and Tourism Activities and Selections of the Guide, the top position in Michelin Travel Partner. Six months later Taisne was gone, but not before having a hand in Michelin’s questionable purchases of 40% interest in both Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Michelin Guide’s rival restaurant guide Le Fooding and licensing the Michelin Guide name and logo for the branding of kitchen supplies sold in major stores. According to his Linked-In page, he hasn’t done anything since. He also hasn’t been heard from either, whereabouts unknown. His replacement Patrick Couasnon was previously in charge of Michelin Tire’s Motorsport Division.
Coincident with the departure of Taisne, Gwendal Poullennec, age 38, who has been with Michelin since 2003 replaced Michael Ellis in September, 2018 as International Director of the Michelin Guides. In Michelin’s press release, it stated that in his new role Poullennec will “continue to embody the values of generosity, passion and independence, which are dear to the Michelin Group, and lead the global team of Michelin inspectors”.
When the 2019 Guide Michelin France appeared, it became clear that Poullennec was out to change the orientation of Michelin Travel Partner in what looks to be a heavy-handed way. You can read elsewhere on this site (“A Great Chef Goes Toe-to-Toe with Bibendum”) how Poullennec took a star away from each of the revered 67-year-old chef Alain Dutournier’s two restaurants and delisted his bistro, apparently in retribution for Dutournier’s dislike of Poullennec’s former boss Jean-Luc Naret, once having called him a clown. Poullennec also took away third stars from two of Dutournier’s contemporaries, the legendary chefs Marc Haeberlin and Marc Veyrat, details of which are below. Poullennec’s disdain for the classic, long-lived and traditional is disconcerting and worrisome to many. Poullennec is also known to punish chefs (15 in the Vosges alone) who don’t subscribe to Michelin’s Bookatable service by omitting them from the guide and then phoning to remind them of the consequences, as he did to an admired veteran chef of a restaurant in Paris’s 15th arrondissement. It’s not surprising that he likes to refer to himself as “El Jivaro”, a member of the indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru who hunt and then shrink heads.
In his announcement to the press on March 5, 2019, Mike Testa, CEO of Visit Sacramento who conceived the plan to bring in Michelin Travel Partner to create a California guide stated, “California’s ground-breaking partnership with Michelin will expand and elevate the global profile of the state as a food destination, bestowing world-class status on hundreds of restaurants in the prestigious series of books, from three-star establishments to local favorites awarded the ‘inspector recommended’ designations, Plates and Bib Gourmands.”
For Guide Michelin’s first 71 years of rating restaurants, no one questioned its inspection protocol, the assumption being that Michelin had enough inspectors working in anonymity who somehow managed to visit at least once a year the large universe of restaurants in the Michelin Guide countries which already had at least one star and those that could in any year earn one. This impression lasted until 2004 when Pascal Remy, a 16-year Michelin inspector wrote the exposé “L’Inspecteur se Met â Table” (“The Inspector Sits Down at the Table”).
Among the revelations of the solitary, underpaid life of eating two restaurant meals a day and staying in cheap hotels, Remy divulged that there were no more than five Michelin inspectors for all of France and that most restaurants received visits once every two to three years. The International Director of Michelin Guides Derek Brown incredulously tried to cover-up by stating that there were 70 inspectors who were shuffled around Europe wherever needed. Seven years later, another inspector went rogue; this one working the Benelux Guide.
Although inspector visits were ostensibly sub-rosa, chefs have readily identified them by the coding on their bank cards, and even sent snapshots of them to their colleagues. In the ensuing years, Michelin has refused to divulge the number of inspectors involved in its restaurant analyses. However for the 2019 Guide Michelin France, one chef who lost a third star asked Michelin for proof of a visit during the previous year (a request Michelin ignored). In the Auvergne, Sebastian Bras, who Michelin left out of the 2018 Guide at his request, surprisingly (because of no sign of an inspector visit) found his restaurant Le Suquet in the 2019 guide minus the third star it had in 2017. More interesting is Michelin’s recent claim on the “Fine Dining Lovers” website that they have “a workforce of 500 inspectors”. Were this the case, Michelin would be spending half or more of its gross revenues on the cost of 400 meals a year (most in little-known restaurants) per inspector plus their salaries and expenses in order to put a symbol next to a name and write mundane, easily-available restaurant description. That most restaurants that receive visits are judged on the basis of a solitary diner ordering one meal shows a lack of rigor, especially compared to newspaper critics who make several visits to a restaurant with a group of fellow diners, often noting inconsistencies in a dish from one visit to the next.
This raises the question as to how Michelin decides its designations in all of its guides, be they in the thousands of Michelin Plate and Bib Gourmand restaurants and the restaurants with stars. One can only surmise that the vast majority of their ratings is some home-brewed mix of employees’ experiences; reports from its readers; word of mouth; its guide book competitors; studying all-inclusive dynamic sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp; mainstream media sites; and blogs. Furthermore, a candid evaluation of the Michelin Guide restaurants is lacking since the description of every restaurant in the guide and on the Michelin website reads as if it were written by the restaurant’s owners or PR agency.
Of course, no one knows at this early stage how successful, good, and long-lasting the California alliance will be. Visit California was prudent by signing only a one-year contract with Michelin. Yet, an “Eater LA” story revealed two months before the June 5th publication of the California Guide that Michelin was asking Instagram account-holders for their photos from certain Los Angeles restaurants, making one wonder if the guide will look like a rush project. Conceptually, there is a conflict between Visit California, an organization that has the role of generally promoting both the state’s restaurant trade and California as an eater’s paradise, and that of Michelin, which is to rate certain restaurants while eliminating others from its guide. With all restaurants contributing money to Visit California according to how much money they realize from visitors coming from at least 50 miles away, how will the those omitted from the guide feel about being excluded?
Other unanswered questions of the Michelin/Visit California collaboration are, if the $600,000 is only to pay for additional inspectors, what is in it for deep-in-debt Michelin Travel Partner? Has Visit California given them the license to hold various corporate-sponsored, commercial profit-making events? Is it paying Michelin for the use of its name? Did it agree to purchase a significant number of printed guides? Are there merchandising, promotion, publicity or other profit-making opportunities involved for Michelin? What editorial rights does Michelin have and what rights of approval, if any, does Visit California have concerning the publication and the Michelin website? Such questions and Michelin’s history and past performance should be on the minds of the decision-makers as they decide if there will be a 2020 Michelin Guide for California.
Addendum: Michelin’s Little Red Books
Nowhere has the integrity of Michelin Travel Partner been more called into question than in Asia where there are now seven guides. With the large number of Asians and Asian restaurants in California, we provide these links:
Credibility of Michelin Guide Seoul still in doubt
Michelin sponsorship: Hong Kong Tourism Board denies paying to use its name at dining festival, but admits deal with related company
Michelin confirms Hong Kong & Macau guide is sponsored, but by companies, not the cities’ tourism boards
Thailand’s new Michelin guide: gold standard of restaurant reviews or overhyped and out-of-date?
Michelin Guide Accused of Selling Out to South Korean Government
Korean Food Dominates Slapdash Michelin Guide
Michelin Guide Seoul creates divisive culinary star war
Proof that the Seoul Michelin Guide is Corrupt to the Bone
Is the Michelin Guide Corrupted?