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Saturday, October 1, 2011

A New Michelin Man

Many Americans think of the Michelin man as a rotund little guy made of tires—the logo for the Michelin tire company.  I’m talking about a different Michelin man…. one who has a profound international influence over fine dining.  Micheal Ellis is the first American appointed as Director of the well known foodie’s bible, the Michelin Guide.

Michelin Guides began in 1900 as a freebie offered to French motorists embarking on a trip.  It offered tips on where to stop in France for help with the car, information on how to fix a tire, maps, and lists of hotels.  In 1920 Michelin began including restaurants and started charging for the book.  By 1926 it introduced a star to denote a very special restaurant with outstanding cuisine.  In 1931, the guide morphed to its present day hierarchical rating of one, two or three star system for establishments of the highest culinary talents.

Few gastronomes know that in 1944 when American soldiers landed in France they had copies of the Michelin guide.  The publication had ceased production during the war, but a special reprint of the 1939 edition was given to our armed forces so that they could use the guide’s detailed maps, as road signs had been taken down. 

Michelin Guides are now in 23 countries and often exert a “make or break” situation for restaurants or chefs.  At least one French chef has committed suicide over the loss of one of Michelin’s prestigious stars.  Fortunes have been made or lost over stars.  Divorces, bankruptcies, restaurant closures have been caused by a demotion in the guide.

Mr. Ellis, a native New Yorker who speaks five languages, took over management of the guide in early 2011.  He has an especially tough job ahead as sales of the guides in the last several years have been steadily dropping.  The guide has not kept up with the technological revolution.  While its website was launched in 1997, it’s not the most user-friendly.  Furthermore, why pay $35 for a heavy book each year if all the updated information is at your fingertips?  Another challenge facing Mr Ellis is the changing mentality toward dining.  Michelin star restaurants are often perceived as stuffy and out of sync with the current movement toward simple, informal, affordable and healthy.

I’m toasting Mr Ellis with a glass of Champagne in hopes that he work some wonders to move the guides into their next chapter. 

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