Forget fusion food and New World wines. French cuisine is still all about tradition. And for the past 102 years, Michelin's Guide Rouge has been its bible. Gourmands flip through the 1,764-page tome -- a catalog of more than 10,000 places to eat and sleep around France -- to find the real gems, the 520 starred restaurants. "The Guide has become part of France's cultural heritage," says Edouard Michelin, the 39-year-old head of parent company Compagnie Générale des Etablissements Michelin.
The inner workings of the Guide Rouge, however, are as shrouded in mystery as the finances of French politicians. That's no surprise, given that Compagnie Générale des Etablissements Michelin, the family-run establishment best known for its tires, isn't known for its transparency among French listed companies.
MEET THE PRESS. Now, guided by the younger generation of Michelins, the Guide Rouge is opening up a tiny bit. It hosted its first press conference ever on Feb. 26 at Ledoyen, one of three French restaurants to join the 23-strong three-star caste this year. And that's just the beginning of the radical changes. An Englishman, Derek Brown, has taken over as head of the Guide Rouge department, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. And the entire catalog of guides, stretching from Portugal to Poland, has been put online for Web surfers to browse for free. The culinary titles bolster Michelin's $64 million library of travel guides.
The company even leaked a few tidbits about how it evaluates restaurants. At the launch of French cable channel Gourmet TV on Mar. 19, Brown revealed that the average age of an inspector is 36. Apprentices are taken on board in their late twenties and spend six months traveling around France with a veteran inspector, eating and sleeping at various establishments.
Brown let on slightly more than Edouard Michelin had at the press conference several weeks earlier. Aggressive journalists looking for detailed answers to such long pent-up questions as "Who are the food judges? What criteria do chefs have to meet to win a magic star? And what do they have to do to keep that star?" were disappointed. Edouard Michelin defends the Guide Rouge's secrecy, saying it allows the Guide to be as anonymous as it is omnipotent when paying random visits to kitchens across the country.
JUST ANOTHER DINER. Secrecy also gives the Guide Rouge its highly prized independence. The red book is ad-free, signaling that there's no possibility that critiques could be bought or influenced with advertising dollars. And hiding the identity of the inspectors means restaurant owners aren't able to treat them any differently than they would other diners. At the end of the meal, the critics pick up their own check. And just to be sure there were no flukes, different inspectors will visit the same restaurant as many as 15 times a year. Three-star establishments will get even more visits. "We value our independence," says Brown. "It's our credibility."
The current inspectors may remain hidden, but ex-inspector Brown is making a splash. He's reforming the Guide Rouge's image by increasing its media coverage and pushing its international angle. What better proof that the Guide Rouge isn't constrained by its French traditions than by putting a Brit in charge? In an interview with Michelin's magazine ViaMichelin, Brown pointed out that his appointment reflects "the group's international dimension, in addition to the fact that the guides cover several countries."
And now the Guide Rouge has a cyberdimension. ViaMichelin.com made its debut last year by putting all of the company's travel guides online -- for free. For devotees who will plan an entire trip around eating at a starred restaurant, the book remains the standard. But the Web site will help draw in new generations of gourmands. "Our online edition doesn't substitute for the paper edition -- they are complementary," says Edouard Michelin.
So does all this modernization mean that Michelin will lose some of its elitism? Not likely. The Guide Rouge's word still counts for a lot. Just try booking a table at any restaurant that has earned the Guide Rouge's three-star rating. You better plan months in advance. By Christina White in Paris