Michael Ellis is in his first year as the worldwide director of the Michelin Guides, having taken over from Jean-Luc Noret in mid-2011. Ellis was born in Denver and educated in the U.S. but he’s spent the last 25 years as an ex-pat in France. As an American, it sounds like he’ll be pushing for more coverage of the U.S. via new Michelin Guides outside of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. We spoke to him just as Bay Area chefs were hearing about their star ratings for this year, and we asked him about his whirlwind year, his thoughts on American cuisine, and when, if ever, Michelin plans to do another guide in L.A.
First off, tell me about yourself. You started on the tire side of things at Michelin?
I did yes. I joined Michelin Group in 2007, working in the motorcycle tire division. I’ve been a food lover for many years, but it’s not something that I decided to pursue professionally. I worked in the tire division for four and a half years and then was fortunate enough to be tapped for this job when it came available.
Has it been a whirlwind year?
It’s probably been the most incredible year of my life. I’ve lived in France now for over 25 years. But having worked briefly as a chef in my twenties, and having that in my blood, it’s just been amazing. To come into the Michelin guides and to be able to meet a lot of the legends in the French, Italian, and Spanish cooking worlds, just incredible.
Can you take a second to explain, for those who might not understand, the history of how a tire company started publishing a respected restaurant guide?
It’s an integral part of the guide’s history. The guide started in 1900 by the brothers Edouard and André Michelin who were tire manufacturers in a small city in central France. They were manufacturing the first inflatable tires, and there were only about 3,500 cars in the entire country of France at that time. They figured the only way they could get people to drive and use their tires was to show them where they could go around the country — because, you know, people really didn’t know where to sleep and eat and weren’t used to car travel. So, the Michelins decided to publish a guide book, and with their money they also established a lot of the highway signage and road markings in France. As the guide became more and more useful, they added inspectors, and eventually the guide expanded outside of France. It grew out of a really simple vision to become a phenomeenon.
How do you see the changes in fine dining and dining culture, basically the "casualization" of the experience especially in the U.S., as affecting the guides?
I grew up in Denver in the 1970s and it’s been remarkable to me seeing the evolution of food and wine in the United States. In the last twenty years, American chefs have really come into their own sphere, creating a real tradition of American food. But the U.S. still has this image, internationally, of being full of hamburger eaters, and unsophisticated diners. What’s really gone unsaid, in Europe especially, is that American chefs more and more are coming to Europe and Japan to train and learn the basics of technique and gone back to use local produce and create a unique, regional cuisine. Especially in San Francisco, which is to me really the most unique American city, food-wise. You have the influence of French traditional technicque, a lot of Asian espeically Japanese influence, and all the great California products, meat, fish, game, produce, herbs.
The official policy of Michelin is to judge places solely on the food, but it still seems like in the San Francisco guide at least, the two- and three-star levels are reserved for restaurants that have traditional fine-dining formats and fairly austere dining rooms. Don’t you feel the inspectors penalize more casual places with less-than-luxe settings?
No, that’s not the case at all. I’ve had the pleasure of going all over the world, and it’s true, when you’re cooking at the three-star level, there’s a cost and investment involved in that, and that’s reflected in the price. And when you have people spending that kind of money to eat, they expect a certain level of comfort. The two go hand-in-hand. It’s not usually that Michelin decides that, but what we always try to express to chefs is ‘Don’t cook for us. Don’t cook for Michelin. Cook for your customers, and if you’re cooking at a high level, we will discover you.’
On that topic, as we mentioned to your Editor-in-Chief, we’re surprised that State Bird Provisions didn’t garner a star or a Bib Gourmand listing, when a more formal place like Keiko à Nob Hill did.
We report on what we see on the ground. Is it the case that we don’t always hit every new restaurant more than once? Yes. And unfortunately, we do have limited resources in terms of people, and we can’t be everywhere at once. We won’t always get everything 100 percent right in a given year, and that’s sometimes just an issue of time and resources.
How do you think the Los Angeles guide might come back? Your predecessor, Jean-Luc Noret, was somewhat unimpressed by L.A.’s restaurant scene of a couple years ago, and said that there wasn’t a single restaurant deserving of three stars.
I worked in Los Angeles while I was in college, because my best friend was from there. I worked as a waiter at Michael’s in Santa Monica. Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, and Nancy Silverton were all working there at the time, and as you know, they’ve all gone on to great careers. I love L.A., and love going back there. In Los Angeles, like everywhere in the country, things evolve so quickly. It just takes one person with the right vision and enough money to invest, and they could hit it out of the park and open a three-star place. I’ve had unbelievable meals in L.A. in years past. Los Angeles is capable of great food, but it all depends on what the public wants. Maybe we’re going through a period when the public is more interested in a certain kind of restaurant. I definitely think they’ll produce three-star restaurants in the future.
Is that in the cards for next year? 2015?
I can’t say. I will say this: My personal opinion is that three cities, even five cities, is not enough in the United States. But I need to sell that idea to my higher-ups at Michelin. I don’t know what form the new guides will take. Are we going to do a Boston guide with 500 restaurants in it? Probably not. But I think we are unique in our method of inspecting restaurants and we should be able to cover more of the country.
Were you personally able to dine at any of the starred restaurants in the Bay Area this year? If so, which ones?
I was in San Francisco three times in 2012, and I was able to eat in about twelve different restaurants, and of those, eight were starred. I can’t mention any names because I was there with inspectors. I had some stunning meals. It’s different than anywhere, and different than Los Angeles. I’m really excited every time I come there.
And not to keep harping on this bit of old news, but what does Chez Panisse need to do to get their star back?
I asked that question to our inspectors too! You know, it’s fabulous, it’s iconic. We love it. I haven’t been able to be back there and my opinion really doesn’t count anyway. But Chez Panisse has been one of my favorite restaurants for many years, and I think it’s only a matter of time before they come back into the star category. But, ultimately, it’s the inspectors who decide.
The 2013 Michelin Guide for San Francisco and the Bay Area goes on sale today.
Earlier: Head Inspector for Michelin Guide Explains Why State Bird Was Snubbed, and Fleur de Lys Lost Its Star
Michelin Stars for 2013 Announced: Atelier Crenn Gets Two, SPQR Earns a Star, Fleur de Lys Loses Theirs