A big risk?

Some foodies turn up their noses at the news that France's Michelin Guide plans to start rating restaurants in New York.

Published February 24, 2005 4:24PM (EST)

The Michelin Guide confirmed Wednesday that it is preparing to publish a book about New York, its first hotel and restaurant ratings outside Europe. But Manhattan's gourmet connoisseurs reacted coolly to the news and warned that the undercover inspectors are likely to choke on their words. "I think it's big risk for Michelin," said Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic for the New York Times. "If they choose restaurants here New Yorkers don't like, then New Yorkers will say: 'The French can say what they like, but we know what we like. Who cares what they think?' But at the same time they will risk their reputation for getting it right in Europe too."

"Michelin is not a household name in America," said John Schaefer, executive chef at the Gramercy Tavern. "Your foodies are aware of it, but for most people it will be a whole new deal. It's got to be a positive thing."

The book, going on sale in November, will rate 500 restaurants in New York's five boroughs according to Michelin's star ratings. One star means worth "a visit," two mean worthy of "a detour," and three are reserved for those that merit a "special trip."

In a country where congressmen recently sought to turn French fries into "freedom" fries in protest of French opposition to the Iraq war, Michelin faces cultural barriers beyond food. "The fact that they are French will be a subject of dismissal and fun for the kind of people who read the New York Post," says Colman Andrews, editor in chief of Saveur, a food and drink magazine based in New York, referring to Rupert Murdoch's tabloid. "But it will be greatly appreciated by those who read the New York Times."

Whether the Michelin team is aware of or indeed concerned by the possibility that they may spark a transatlantic, gastronomic controversy is unclear. "A New York guide is part of an old dream of mine," Edouard Michelin, the chairman of the tire company responsible for the guide, told the New York Times. "It goes back 20 years. At first there was France, then Europe, but now there's the world, and New York is the gateway. New York makes you discover other cuisines."

Not all of the restaurant inspectors, who dine undeclared but are followed up by another inspector who does reveal his or her identity and ask to see the kitchen, are French. But Reichl points out that they will have to understand that the economic model for American restaurants is not the same as Europe's. "If they are very put off by the fact that they have to wait for a table, that will be a problem," she said. "There is a frenetic quality to New York restaurants that the French just don't have. But with that there is a certain amount of energy."

There is also a wide variety of ethnic foods with which Michelin's European palate may be ill-acquainted. "One problem with Michelin has been that when they go outside of French they tend to reward restaurants with a French style rather than on their own terms," says Andrews. "One of the tests of their sophistication will be to see whether they are able to judge a good steak house."

The ratings system may also throw New Yorkers. "Michelin will have to do a bit of explaining with only three stars at the top," said Eric Ripert, the chef and a partner at Le Bernardin, a restaurant that had two Michelin stars in Paris when it moved to New York. "Most of the newspaper reviewers here go up to four stars."

By Gary Younge

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