Michelin’s Jean-Luc Naret: ‘No Improvement’ in the Food at Del Posto

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

Yes, the Michelin guide just unfurled its 2011 star ratings and the only man who can help us make sense of ’em is Jean-Luc Naret, the dapper Frenchman who is the face of the operation (not including the actual Michelin man, of course). Our first question to him: Whattup with Del Posto? The place blows $500,000 and doesn't get its second star back? Naret tells us that his inspectors found improvements in service and whatnot, but not in the quality of the cuisine. Here’s what else he told us, about why restaurants like Locanda Verde and Colicchio & Sons didn’t make the cut, what a Michelin report actually looks like, and his favorite New York City meal of the past year.

So first things first, you didn’t give Del Posto its star back. Were you thinking of the drama of the situation as you made that decision?
We’re not looking at any drama. We’re not looking at the name on the door, or the investment made in the restaurant. We’re only looking at what’s on the plate. People who know about food understand [why it didn’t get the star], because after the restaurant received the four-star review there was a lot of tweets questioning that. Obviously we did find improvement in terms of the restaurant and the service, but we didn’t find improvement in the quality of cuisine.

How about another highly regarded restaurant that still has just one star, Eleven Madison Park?
Again, we’e looking at the value in the plate, your experience, how the ingredients are cooked, the way the chef is preparing and mastering the supper, and obviously it got one star, it didn’t get two. You have to go to other restaurants to see the difference between one and two star.

There were a few new two-star restaurants, but the three-star list seems pretty static. What does it take to crack that?
The first thing I would say is that this year the overall quality of restaurants in New York tremendously improved; at the beginning we only had 500 restaurants, and now we have 716. The level of the cuisine has really been elevated. There’s really great potential in the coming years; we’re looking at the three-star chefs of tomorrow.

What does one of your inspector’s reports actually look like?
You can look at it as two-page report — the first being about the ambiance, the classification of service, the wine cellar. It could go from one cover to five cover (an incredible beautiful dining room such as a Per Se or Daniel; Del Posto I think is a four). The other part of the report is everything about the plate. Every single dish that has been served and tested, he’s ranking it one way or the other: one, two, three stars. You can have a restaurant that has a three-star signature dish, but that’s only one dish. We’re looking for consistency across the menu based on the fact that we go to this restaurant not only once but different times, for different experiences — lunch dinner, weekday, weekend.

What do you say to the inevitable accusations you’ll get, that you gave a heretofore under-the-radar place like Danny Brown a star just to stir up chatter, or so you’d have a Queens pick?
We’re not creating stars to sell books. He was a bib gourmand before, which is already a distinction in itself. When I called him this morning to tell him he was getting a star he was very happy — it’s unpretentious, it's mixed up between a wine bar with tapas and some Italian. It’s a very friendly, very nice, neighborhood place, and a restaurant deserves to be recognized when you go there and are surprised by the quality of the product and the personality of the chef on the palate.

What do you say to people who think the list is getting stale and there isn’t enough change from year to year? I’m thinking of restaurants that might’ve perhaps deserved a star, like Locanda Verde.
I totally disagree. Obviously there’s more and more restaurants in New York and more this year that deserve to be recognized. They’re all different, from places like Aldea, Laut, Dovetail, and the Chef’s Table, which we recognized with two stars. That means it’s one of the top 300 restaurants in the world. We didn’t give two stars because it was Brooklyn — it really deserved to be recognized. To be listed in the guide is already to be two stars with any other publication.

Did you consider Colicchio & Sons? Is Tom Colicchio not cooking at a Michelin level?
It’s not in the world of the stars, but yes we’re looking at it — it’s being followed like all the others. We have quite a few restaurants actually listed from Tom Colicchio.

Are there times when you disagree with the inspectors? Do you have personal favorites that haven’t gotten starred?
We actually are very lucky to be in accordance with a lot of things on the list. My job is not to influence at all any decision made by the group, since when I go to restaurants obviously I’m recognized and can get different treatment. Sometimes we disagree and I say, “On that one, I’d appreciate it if you go back because the experience I had was really good, and you should go.” Out of my top three dining experiences this year, one was in Chicago (we’ll announce that later), the second was in Tokyo, and the third was in New York — and it was in Brooklyn at the Chef’s Table.