I had been planning to devote this Saturdays column to an interview with Jean-Luc Naret, the editor-in-chief of the Michelin guides to restaurants worldwide, an interview which he had requested.
However, after more than a week spent on the phone and via email with his London PR, Naret eventually withdrew because he would not agree to a fundamental principle of any journalistic interview – that this process should only include two people. Such an approach, I believe, detracts from the professional image Michelin seeks to project and, because they refuse to speak face to face with the press, colours their judgement which too many chefs in my opinion still consider far too important.
This sorry tale began with a phone call from Michelins PR. Her aim, she professed, was to change the hitherto secretive approach Michelin had adopted in the past to the announcement of their annual guide to the restaurants of Great Britain. These had usually been sent out on a few pieces of paper in an undistinguished brown envelope with a headline that stated the details of the guide were embargoed until a certain date. Whether this process continues I cannot say because to date I have not received this years release.
As part of Michelins more open approach, she continued, would I like to conduct an interview over dinner with Naret during his stay in London? As this call was early evening I said I would like to consider it and then revert with some possible dates. This she agreed to. I subsequently called her back to say that I thought this would be a good idea and we discussed possible dates. Eventually, dinner on Tuesday 23rd January was agreed upon. The location was to be decided, although it was made clear M Naret would want some say in this and it should not be too far from his hotel in Belgravia. I also stipulated, in case of any misunderstanding, that the FT would be the host.
It was only then that I began to realise what Michelin means by an interview. Soon afterwards I received an email from the PR confirming the date and saying that they were happy with my tentative suggestion of Bentleys in Swallow Street as the venue. Having requested a rendezvous at 7.30/8.00pm as they had an early start the following morning, she then said that there would in fact be four at the interview: M Naret, Marie Benedicte Chevet, Michelins Service de Presse, herself and me. Putting aside that this was going to cost the FT twice what I had originally thought (something I would have to explain to my Editor) I went back to Michelins PR and said that this was, sadly, unacceptable.
This is not, however, how Michelin see an interview. A few days later the PR emailed back to say that she could understand how I may not want a PR representative there and she was more than happy to back out. But she insisted that the presence of Michelins Service de Presse was a prerequisite, Marie is Jean-Lucs travelling companion from Michelin and I think she would be a good source of detailed information on Michelin should you need it. Unnecessarily, in my opinion, she added Jean-Luc is a big FT fan and is excited about the idea of meeting you.
At this stage my gut feeling was simply to say No but I thought it best to take advice from those who conduct interviews on a regular basis. They all agreed that, fundamentally, the presence of a third party completely changes the chemistry of an interview and always for the worse. It means that the subject has someone else to look at during the meal and to look towards for the right answers. I also knew that I would feel uncomfortable. Although I may not be in the same league as those renowned for their tough interviewing tactics, there was no way in which I could ignore a lady throughout the entire course of what I had hoped would be an interesting dinner. An interview for the FT is `à deux, a principle that applies to all the papers subjects from leading businessmen to the worlds politicians. I passed all this on to the PR adding that as the interview would not appear in the paper for 10 days there was plenty of time for me to contact this invaluable source of information should I need to.
Michelin, however, believes that an interview which they have requested should be on their terms and their terms only. My response to the last sentence of the PRs email Shall we go ahead as planned? was only if the normal journalistic convention was followed. Instead of dinner with Naret I had what was undoubtedly a more relaxing meal at one of the many branches of the Lebanese Maroush restaurants with my family.
The subsequent publication of the 2007 guide has led to the usual number of heartbroken chefs who have discovered that they have either lost a star because of what has been reported back as the odd lapse from the kitchen or have not gained the second star they have dreamt of, foolishly in my opinion (the second star is an ambiguous position as it can be construed as a restaurant on the way up or on the way down). I would have been keen to hear directly from Narets lips why Le Gavroche, the most consistent top quality French restaurant in Great Britain, still only merits two stars; why the high mark-ups on wine at all Gordon Ramsay restaurants seem to be tolerated without demur and why, however good they may become, restaurants such as Arbutus, La Noisette and LAtelier de Joel Robuchon, have garnered their first Michelin star when they can only have been open for six months or less before the guide went to press. Are these restaurants being judged on promise or the constant maintenance of standards which Michelin has always claimed as the significant difference between its value judgements and those of other restaurant guides? The award to Jeremy and Shona Wares, two days after they sold their restaurant, 63 Tay Street, in Perth, Scotland, can only be construed as a bonus for the young, local chef who has bought it and whom Michelin must hope maintains standards for at least the next year.
I would also have liked to question Naret on how Michelin is coping with the rising costs of sending out inspectors to cover thoroughly and professionally the growing number of restaurants. And ask him to dispel the impression, strongly conveyed in Rudolph Chelminksis book The Perfectionist on the late chef Bernard Loiseau, that even in France Michelin is having difficulty supporting enough inspectors to cover their home territory. To what use Michelin puts the 45,000 letters and emails it receives each year would also have been another question and what, if anything, Michelin has learnt from its expansion into New York and San Francisco and the Bay Area. But it was not to be.
This sad episode has revealed to me that while the chefs and restaurateurs on whom Michelin sits in judgement upon so secretively are not afraid to put their reputation on the line whenever they are open for business Michelins editor-in-chief, the organisations senior spokesperson, does not have the same courage of his convictions.