For almost a century, chefs in France have wept into their pâté en croûte over the loss or gain of a star in the Michelin Guide. And not only French chefs. The legendary "red book" put out by French tire company Michelin now comes in 12 regional editions that rate restaurants from London to Portugal. "It's the gold standard of European food guides," says New York celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Now the legend is set to cross the Atlantic. In November, Michelin will publish its first U.S. edition, a selection of 500 top-notch New York City restaurants and hotels. "Today the city has some of the best chefs from around the world. We can't not be there," says Jean-Luc Naret, the guides' worldwide director.
This time, Bibendum, better known as the Michelin man on American shores, is up against some tough competition. Gotham is Zagat country. Some 650,000 copies of Zagat's guide to New York City dining were sold last year, compared with 415,000 Michelin guides to the restaurants and hotels of France. While Michelin employs highly trained "inspectors" and guards their anonymity, Zagat relies on reports submitted by readers. "Our guide is based on the collective experiences of thousands of restaurant-savvy New Yorkers," says Curt Gathje, editor of Zagat's 2006 edition. Michelin's more costly methods are reflected in the $29 cover price for the voluminous French guide. The New York City version will be priced at $16.95, competitive with Zagat's $13.95.
For the Big Apple, the guide gets a facelift. The European format bestows two-sentence reviews on each restaurant, but the New York edition will feature photos and descriptions as long as two pages. John Bowen, partner at Publicis Groupe's BOS Group, a marketing consultancy, believes Michelin will build a following: "There is a belief in New York that the city can't be comprehended by anyone but New Yorkers, but Michelin has great credibility with global travelers."
Nonetheless, keeping pace with the city that never sleeps may prove a challenge. For $19.95 a year, obsessive foodies can subscribe to Zagat's online service and get monthly e-mail updates of the newest hot spots. Visitors to ViaMichelin.com can access reviews free of charge, but content is updated annually.
Given the competition, will Michelin make a bundle in the Big Apple? The guides generate a small fraction of the tiremaker's $19 billion in overall sales. Still, the company believes the red books add priceless prestige to the brand. Back home, however, the guide's luster has been tarnished of late. Colleagues and friends of French überchef Bernard Loiseau believe that rumors he was about to be demoted to two stars led to his suicide in 2003. In May Parisian chef Alain Senderens announced he would downscale his three-star menu at Lucas Carton because he was exhausted from the pressure of living up to the rating. A 2004 memoir by veteran inspector Pascal Rémy said that Michelin bows to lobbying from top chefs and fails to inspect restaurants for each new edition. The company admits its inspectors don't visit each restaurant every year, but denies that it is influenced by lobbying.
Sales of the red guide also declined 7% last year in France, partly because diners have been switching to online review sites, including Michelin's. But Michelin still fared better than the overall European guide book industry, which saw 2004 sales slide 10%. "The French like to shoot down icons, but our guides are still going strong," says Emmanuel Penicaud, president of the maps and guides division.
Michelin expects to sell 80,000 to 300,000 copies of the New York red book the first year. In the meantime, New York's top chefs can only wring their aprons as they wait to see which establishments bagged a three-star rating. Who's the smart money on? Per Se, where Thomas Keller cooks up a mean dish of Island Creek oysters, pearl tapioca, and Osetra caviar; Masa, a hyper-exclusive Japanese restaurant; and seafood star Le Bernardin.
By Rachel Tiplady in Paris, with David Kiley in New York