Michelin Head Jean-Luc Naret Is Excited for Benu, and Starting His Own Company

Photo: Patrick McMullen

Grub Street spoke briefly with Michelin Guide director Jean-Luc Naret this morning following the release of the 2011 Bay Area guide, first about why he decided to step down as of the end of this year, and also about why Meadowood deserved its three-star promotion. “It’s about consistency. Christopher [Kostow] really amazed us this year… It is truly a three-star experience across the menu.” A total of 519 restaurants are listed in the guide this year, with two 3-star restaurants (French Laundry has held the sole slot at the three-star level since the guide launched in the Bay Area four years ago), three 2-star restaurants, thirty-nine 1-star restaurants, and 74 Bib Gourmand picks. As Naret told Grub Street NY a few weeks back, “To [even] be listed in the guide is already to be two stars with any other publication.”

We hear you’ve decided to leave your position with Michelin. What led to your decision?
I said from the beginning when I took over the position that I would only be here for three to five years. It’s now been seven years, and time flies, and it’s time to move on. I always wanted to start my own company by the age of 50, and now I’m 49, so it’s time.

What can you tell us about this company?

Well, I am still wearing the hat of Michelin until January 1st. We’ll talk more about it then.

What can you tell us about Meadowood this year? What set the restaurant apart from the others in the two-star list last year (Coi, Manresa, Cyrus) that made it deserve the promotion?
The difference between two and three is really consistency. You can have an equivalent experience at a two-star restaurant, you can have an incredible dish, and a wonderful meal. But at Meadowood we returned six times this year and Christopher really amazed us this year. Over the last few years we’ve kept an eye on the restaurant, and I’ve always loved it there, even before Christopher was there, but we didn’t find the consistency we were looking for. This year, Christopher has been growing his own produce and doing really incredible things. It is truly a three-star experience across the menu.

What went into the discussion about who to promote? Were there votes for the other restaurants as well?
There is always a lot of discussion. We think there is incredible potential for restaurants around the Bay Area. The next year could be a really big year.

Where else in San Francisco did you personally dine this year?
I dined at Spruce, and had a wonderful meal. I love San Francisco but to be honest with you I did not actually get to spend as much time there this year as I like to because we are launching the Chicago guide and I spent a lot of time in Chicago. But one place I am really looking forward to go to is Benu. That’s going to be really interesting. We’re definitely going to watch this new venture and we know the talent of the chef, Corey Lee, who worked with Thomas Keller. The restaurant of course was not eligible for the guide this year because our cut-off was August 1, and they opened on August 10 I believe.

Michelin got a lot of flack this year for the number of three-star honors that were given out in the Kansai region in Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe). And a long list of three-stars are expected to be given in the new Tokyo guide that comes out soon. Care to comment on that?
When you look at the number of restaurants around the world, and you look at the sheer numbers in Japan, it makes sense that there would be this many good restaurants. There are 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo (including Yokohama and Kumamoto), which is almost as many restaurants as there are in all of France (about 200,000). And that’s just one city. We expanded to new places this year, like Kyoto, because many people are traveling there and the level of quality is really increasing in Japan over the last three or four years. People need to know that they can go to Japan today and have a truly world-class culinary experience. Our job is to find incredible chefs, to tell people where they are, and we found incredible consistency around Japan. The Japanese really wake up every day and say how can we do exactly what we were doing yesterday, but do it better. And that is what we look for.

What would you say are trends that you’ve seen taking shape in worldwide cuisine over the last several years?
Two things: produce and technique. You are seeing more and more sophisticated techniques being used all over, but this also comes with technology - it’s very hard to burn anything anymore with these fancy ovens. You know in our grandfathers’ day chefs burned things all the time.

But also you see more chefs using fresh, local produce, in season. Because of the willingness of the chef to work with producers and to get them to grow what they want, this means they’re working with incredible produce. This comes partly from the influence of California on the world, but this is something they have done in Japan always – a commitment to seasonality. Ten years ago you had chefs bragging about how far they were sourcing products from, flying in exotic things from thousands of miles away. Now you have chefs realizing they could have that produce locally, and delivered at a price that is reasonable to the customer. But also you have three-star chefs who moved out of London and back to the country, and chefs at the time of mad-cow disease who were limiting themselves to products from a ten-mile radius, because it was all they could trust. So there is all this mixed together - people traveling more, these events in Europe. It is a more local gastronomy with season back in place.

UPDATE: In re: Chez Panisse, Naret tells the Scoop: “We couldn’t find the consistency anymore at Chez Panisse, so we couldn’t put it on the same level as last year. We had to make a decision. It was one of the top restaurants at one point, but it’s not this year. We’ll revisit.”

Michelin 2011 Guide Released: Meadowood Rises to Three Stars, Chez Panisse Dissed [Grub Street]
Earlier: Café Des Amis, Sons & Daughters Among Michelin’s 2011 Bib Gourmand Picks [Grub Street]
Michelin’s Jean-Luc Naret: ‘No Improvement’ in the Food at Del Posto [Grub Street NY]

Michelin Head Jean-Luc Naret Is Excited for Benu, and Starting His Own Company