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The Michelin Controversy

Then Who Can We Trust?

by Bryan Miller

Former New York Times restaurant critic, Bryan Miller is a prominent authority in American gastronomic literature. Here is his take on the surprising Michelin case...

The accusation this week by a former Michelin Red Guide inspector that his ex-employer is misleading the public about the manner and frequency of its inspections—specifically, that their restaurant critics don’t visit establishments as often as the company says, and that some three star establishments are sacred cows because of their high profile owners—has the food world aflutter.

The charges are forwarded by one Pascal Remy, a disgruntled ex-Michelin Guide employee who put in 16 years on the caviar circuit. He decided to lift the cloche from the famously secretive company because, it is alleged, he was upset by the company’s refusal to let him publish a book based on his gustatory journals. And when he disobeyed, he was reportedly fired. Remy is said to be suing Michelin over his dismissal.

Remy contends that, contrary to popular perception, Michelin has only five inspectors in the field fruitlessly trying to assess thousands of restaurants; the company counters that it has more, but not necessarily based in France, and that they visit 4,000 establishments in 18-month intervals.

This brouhaha gets more complicated, but suffices to say that, if Remy is telling the truth about the revered Red Guide it will be the biggest event in the food world since August Escoffier mused, “Maybe I should write a little cookbook.”

If it turns out that we can’t trust Michelin, who can we trust? When it comes to international restaurant ratings, it is really the only game in town. The Mobile Guide does not have significant impact on the American dining scene; nor do the half dozen or so industry based awards that seem to clutter the vestibule of every establishment that invests in tablecloths.

Then there are newspapers. Whenever I travel, I pick up every local and regional newspaper I can find. When it comes to restaurant “criticism,” 90 percent of those are of questionable value. (On a recent trip north, I learned to my delight that Thomaston, Maine, has nearly as many great Italian restaurants as Manhattan.)

Very few newspapers in the smaller markets have the necessary logistics to put together a well rounded — and fair — assessment. What is more, many small papers are hamstrung by advertising concerns. City magazines, in the few largest markets, can be better. Yet, they are increasingly vested in reader surveys, as well.

What about the vox populi method of restaurant reviewing? Everyone’s a critic. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just that everybody does it, many at the expense of real criticism. For restaurants, it is an endless cycle of primaries and general elections.

So if the gastronomic Hummer of Michelin blows a flat, shall we all be left standing along the road?

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Former New York Times restaurant critic, food writer and cookbook author Bryan Miller (Cooking for Dummies, Desserts for Dummies), is a prominent authority in American gastronomic literature. Bryan Miller

 
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