Grub Street spoke today with the Editor-in-Chief of the Michelin Guides in North America, on the eve of the official release of the 2013 Bay Area guide. (The full list of star honorees just dropped in this hour.) She has served as head inspector among the anonymous army of inspectors Michelin deploys to update the guides each year, and she sounds like a big fan of the food in the Bay Area, even though we have a mere two three-star restaurants while New York has seven. It’s the first time we’ve had a conversation with a Michelin inspector and we’ll say it was pretty informative, though the word that we already knew was key in all Michelin’s judgements got repeated often in our conversation: consistency.
To achieve one or two stars, a restaurant and its chef[s] need to be executing excellent food over multiple years, without flaws or obvious laziness. And to get three stars, that quality standard is held even higher, to that of the great restaurants of Europe and beyond, and it has to be spot-on over time. Michelin has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, particularly in France, for honoring primarily the old-school, white-tablecloth, ultra-formal restaurants frequented by the elite. But this editor tries to set us straight today, giving her reasons why a restaurant like Commonwealth or State Bird Provisions might not have made the cut for the one-star level this year, and why SPQR did.
Grub Street: How many years have you been with Michelin and how many years in the Bay Area?
Editor-in-chief: We are in our seventh edition in the Bay Area, and our eighth in New York, and I have personally been with the Michelin Guides in North America since that first New York guide. I’ve been in every city we’ve been in, including Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. All along we’ve had inspectors who live here in the Bay Area, but I tend to do a lot of traveling around.
At one point, via Twitter, one of your inspectors told me that you have a total of three devoted to the Bay Area. Is that still true?
I’d be surprised if anyone had given you a specific number. Our response to the question of how many people we have on the ground is always “enough to get the job done.”
There are a couple of San Francisco inspectors who live here, in the East Bay and South Bay, but they also travel all over the country, and others come in from elsewhere, as I do, all year.
We know you probably can’t show specific favorites or preferences, but could you tell us what are the two most memorable meals you had this year while touring around?
That’s really hard. I dine out about nine times a week. I wouldn’t say they were my absolute favorite, but I have had really memorable meals at The Restaurant at Meadowood, especially this year with the evolution that Chef Kostow has been going through. I’ve had a few memorable years over the last couple of years at Manresa, and Benu. Atelier Crenn has been just totally extraordinary over the past two years and she’s doing some really inventive things there. Meals at Saison tend to really stand out for me. [Joshua Skenes] is doing something truly unique and singular there, too.
I’m very, very lucky to do what I do. And of course the stars are just a tiny selection of what we cover. Sometimes a burrito might be the highlight of my week. I go for dim sum in the South Bay every trip. I really enjoy some of the Chinese restaurants down there, and Vietnamese in San Jose. We certainly don’t eat at the one- or two-star level day in and day out.
I’m most curious with the new list as to why State Bird Provisions, which has been universally praised and was named a Best New Restaurant by both Bon Appetit and Esquire, seems to have not been on Michelin’s radar yet, star-wise?
We’ve been there. We always use Michelin’s longstanding criteria to assess restaurants. And of course we recognize that other guides and journalists use a different set of criteria. We don’t always see things the same way. Sometimes you have restaurants that are total darlings in a given city, and we just, perhaps, didn’t have the same experience there. In this case, it just didn’t meet our criteria this year, for this guide.
Can you speak to the loss of Fleur de Lys’s star? Is the restaurant not as consistent as it once was?
There were a number of restaurants this year that we felt had been suffering from inconsistency over multiple years, and we were keeping on an eye on them and seeing if maybe they could bring things back over time. Consistency was one of the factors in the case of Fleur de Lys, and another factor is that the bar has really been raised in the Bay Area by a whole bunch of other restaurants that have reached the one-star level in the last couple of years, and we want all those restaurants to maintain the same level of quality and be held to the same standard over time.
What happened at SPQR this year versus, say, last year, that earned it a star?
We’re looking for consistency over time. We’ve been following SPQR since Matt [Accarrino] started there, and we knew he was doing exciting, wonderful things. It took us some time to feel confident enough in the consistency of the food to award him one star. And we’re very excited to be able to do that this year.
It seems like restaurants like Commonwealth, and maybe even Saison, get marks against them for things like uncomfortable or non-luxe bathrooms, or less than terrific locations. Do you think that’s ever the case?
The star is really only about what’s on the plate. The forks and spoons in the guide indicate the comfort levels. Certainly there are plenty of starred restaurants around the world in really remote places with less than luxurious facilities. In the Bay Area you have a one-star restaurant in Bodega Bay, Terrapin Creek, and there as you know it’s just a café, really casual inside, the bathroom situation is a little less than ideal where you have to go outside to get there. But what’s on the plate is definitely one-star food, time and again.
Why has a restaurant like Saison, Manresa, or Coi not risen to the three-star level when many would say they serve superior, or equally good and more interesting food, than some three-star restaurants in New York?
Achieving three Michelin stars is a really huge accomplishment. It requires an incredible level of cuisine and consistency. Even at the two-star level, what those chefs are doing night after night in terms of quality and consistency is extraordinary — we don’t ever want to diminish the two-star level. We do watch restaurants like Manresa, Saison, and Coi really closely and go to them a lot of times in a year, and hope to award them three stars. But it’s not easily achieved or maintained. We get really excited when we’re able to give them that honor.
And finally, I asked [guide director] Michael Ellis and I’ll ask you: What does Chez Panisse need to do to earn back their star? Did your inspectors pay many visits there, or to the Café, this year?
We’ve gone back a number of times. As you know, they’ve been going through a period of transition. The two new chefs are just settling in. And we’re hoping as that happens to see an elevated level of cooking in the next year. We’re optimistic, we love Chez Panisse, and it represents a lot about the Bay Area. We’re hoping to find one-star food there in the future.