Lost In Translation

Lost In Translation

DELUXE: Alain Ducasse now holds nine Michelin stars: six in Europe, three in the U.S.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: The Zagat Survey will outsell the new Michelin Guide three to one.

SOLID GOLD: Jean-Georges Vongerichten (l.) has won awards before for Jean-Georges in Trump Tower. Now he's got three Michelin stars.

EXPEDITE: Chefs who stay in their home kitchens, like Daniel Boulud, got short shrift from Michelin.


Last month's debut of Michelin Guide New York City 2006—the first U.S. publication from French and European restaurant standard-setter Michelin Guide—was intended to have a huge impact on New York's culinary scene. Short term, it did, if the amount of publicity generated about which restaurants ranked where is your measure. But two questions linger. Was Michelin really able to determine for New Yorkers (whose lives revolve around being and having the best) which restaurants actually are the best? And, more importantly, should the arrival of the Michelin Guide matter to non-New Yorkers, particularly those who operate full-service restaurants elsewhere, like you?

One thing's for sure. Nothing stirs up interest about eating out more than turf wars between high-profile restaurant guides. Everybody likes a horse race, and newspapers and magazines in New York have been full of stories about who beat whom in the rankings.

The Zagat Survey is New York's reigning champ of restaurant rating guidebooks, and Zagat released its 2006 rankings just prior to Michelin's.

This year's winners of Zagat's highly prized "Most Popular" included the usual suspects: Two standouts from Danny Meyer, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe, followed by Mario Batali's Babbo and Daniel Boulud's Daniel. Given Zagat's methodology— restaurant patrons rate dining experiences and submit them to Zagat, which compiles the results-—it's not surprising that familiar names continue to dominate. It's like political elections, where the power of incumbency tends to keep the same people on top.

Which is one reason restaurant guide followers were eager to see what Michelin would bring to the party. Nobody gets a vote in the Michelin system, except the handful of anonymous inspectors the guide employs. For its first crack at New York, Michelin unleashed an all-European inspector team upon the city. They were touted as impartial observers, but the Michelin people may have brought more than a little attitude to their task. "America is like the Wild West," said Jean-Luc Naret, president of the Michelin Guide, earlier this spring. "They have never really met or received true restaurant criticism."

In the end, Michelin was stingy with its stars, awarding coveted three-star ratings to but four New York City establishments: Jean-Georges, Alain Ducasse, Le Bernardin and Thomas Keller's new Per Se. Two stars went to Bouley, Daniel, Danube and Masa. Thirty-one restaurants got a single star. In all, 507 restaurants were written up in a guide where inclusion alone is considered a big deal. (New York City has 23,000 eateries, of which Michelin Guide inspectors visited 1,200. Zagat lists 1,700 restaurants).

What standards were used? Many New York chefs pointed out that the U.S. three-star experience appeared to be narrowly defined to include only those restaurants that are near-carbon copies of star holders in France: i.e, flawless French food, meticulous service, exquisite environment, staggering check. Places that put out New American, Italian, Japanese or other food can't get in the club. Keep this in mind if Michelin decides to come to your town.

Unlike European three-star restaurants, however, chefs in the U.S. don't seem to be required to spend much time at their operation. At Per Se, Jonathan Benno runs the kitchen, while name chef Thomas Keller remains out in Napa Valley. And how many RH readers can name the executive chef at Alain Ducasse? Give up? It's Tony Esnault.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten is listed as executive chef at Jean-Georges, but how many hours do you think a guy with 18 restaurants and 2,200 employees really puts in there? And while Eric Ripert is usually hands-on at Le Bernardin, he's got other irons in the fire, too. His latest: BarÁa 18, a Spanish restaurant in partnership with restaurateur Stephen Hanson. So will Michelin be doing inspections in your city soon? Its success in New York will tell the tale. Keep in mind that Michelin is not in the restaurant rating business. It's in the guide-selling business. Plus, Michelin is first and foremost a tire manufacturing company. Guide income accounts for one percent of overall revenue.

In New York City, Michelin is entering a market already awash in restaurant criticism, with everyone from the New York Times to Zagat to the food magazines to web sites to blogs weighing in regularly.

Make no mistake; Michelin puts out a high-quality guide. It's the one to have for those interested in dining at fancy French restaurants located in midtown Manhattan. But how big a market is that? French fine dining has been on a decline in New York City for the past few years. Notable recent closings include Lutðce, Lespinasse, La Caravelle, La CÙte Basque and Le Cirque—a veritable Hall of Fame of the genre.

Michelin says it expects to sell between 80,000 to 150,000 copies of its 400-page NYC guide at $16.95. The return on its investment here seems modest. Zagat, on the other hand, will probably sell 350,000 copies of its New York guide at $13.95. You do the math.