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Michelin's Turbulent Time: Inspector Spills Secrets Just Before Guide Changes Directors

A book by a former inspector in France provides an inside peek at the famed Red Guide's restaurant ratings.

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: June 18, 2004

Amid an unusually tumultuous time for the secretive institution, Michelin has revealed that the director of its celebrated Red Guides, Derek Brown, is retiring this summer. Jean-Luc Naret, 43, a Frenchman who has managed luxury hotels around the world, will succeed him in September.

Brown, who turns 60 on July 28, has been winding down his 33 years at Michelin dealing with an unusual controversy: the public reaction to an insider's book, L'inspecteur se met à table (The Inspector Sits Down For Dinner), written by Pascal Remy, a former employee who has broken the 104-year-old institution's traditional code of silence.

Controversy is not entirely new for Brown, who started as an inspector in the United Kingdom and worked his way up to director in January 2001. His own appointment, as an Englishman heading a bastion of French culture, created a stir, and during his tenure, the power of restaurant guides' ratings over chefs' careers was the subject of debate following the suicide of three-star chef Bernard Loiseau.

Remy, 40, reviewed restaurants and hotels as a Michelin inspector for 16 years until the company fired him last December after learning that he had kept notes about his job. Remy said he refused to sign a confidentiality agreement that would ban him from writing about his experience. Remy and Michelin are now involved in legal proceedings over his dismissal, among other issues.

"I left Michelin with my notes and my anecdotes, and turned my diary into a book," said Remy, a tall man whose self-assured smile suggests he enjoys the controversy his book has created in France.

Published earlier this year in French, Remy's 170-page paperback is both critical and complimentary of Michelin, which is not mentioned by name, except on a ribbon around the book that notes the author was a Michelin inspector.

The book is an amalgam of entertaining anecdotes and autobiographical notes about working for Michelin in a country where the guide is revered and feared. The French press has applauded the book for its candid behind-the-scenes view of how Michelin inspectors actually rate restaurants.

Michelin took out ads in French media this spring in which it defended the "integrity, discretion, regularity and quality" of its work since the first guide came out in 1900, but the ad campaign only fueled the debate. French food journalists wrote that they were surprised that Michelin didn't visit all the restaurants and hotels listed in its annual guide, as Remy reported.

In recent years, Remy claimed, Michelin divided France into three zones and reviewed the establishments in one zone per year. "The two other zones are reviewed over the next two years, except for the grand restaurants, particularly the three stars, which are visited annually," he wrote.

Brown confirmed that inspectors don't visit every restaurant every year, but said Michelin annually reviews all of France's three stars, virtually all the two stars and many of the one stars. But he acknowledged that Michelin takes 18 months to visit all the establishments listed in the guide. That would mean that about two-thirds of the 9,214 restaurants and hotels listed in the 2004 guide to France were visited.

"It has been presumed that we went to all the restaurants, but I've never said such was the case," Brown said. "Is it really necessary to visit the Bristol [a luxury hotel in Paris] every year to see if it is still a fine hotel? Same for the little bistro around the corner; we know these places intimately."

Michelin's exact manpower is another point of contention. Remy alleges that Michelin can't review enough establishments because it employed just five full-time inspectors for France in 2003.

Brown said Michelin's entire European staff encompasses 70 inspectors, many of whom are assigned to work in France for part of the year. The 2004 guide involved 21 inspectors, working full-time or part-time, he said.

Remy did praise his former employer for its professionalism and independence from the restaurant industry. "In 16 years, I've always paid [for my meals] and always been reimbursed by Michelin," said Remy, whose book detailed the lengths to which inspectors would go to remain anonymous, a goal that was sometimes hard to achieve. He said Michelin inspectors introduced themselves only after paying their restaurant bill.

Among the book's more entertaining passages is a description of Michelin inspectors outfoxing a restaurateur. When a former Michelin director came to La Tour d'Argent in Paris one night, the staff of the three-star, Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant recognized him and led his group to the best table, giving the party VIP treatment, Remy wrote. Meanwhile, two men seated at a lesser table, near the toilets in the back, felt a bit ignored. "But," Remy wrote, "the two inspectors had the satisfaction of seeing the restaurateur's jaw drop when one of them politely presented his Guide card" after the meal. The simultaneous presence of the director and the inspectors at Tour d'Argent that night had not been planned, but "the director was the best possible cover the inspectors could have thought of."

Brown said the timing of his retirement had not been influenced by the book. "It's not a black spot for me, just an event in my career," he said.

While director, Brown launched regional food guides and a guide to good-value bed-and-breakfasts, and also updated the existing guides. In the 2004 edition, he added a symbol for hotels with spas and rewarded wine-destination restaurants with a red-grape symbol.

"For a long time, people have been asking us to give more information about wine," Brown said. "We are looking for places that pair nicely the wines with the cooking, keep the wines properly, buy wisely in terms of vintages and so forth. … A little bistro with 50 regional wines could just as easily get the symbol as a great restaurant with a vast cellar."

Naret, who Michelin hired in 2003 as future director of the Red Guides, has been working under Brown since early this year. A Michelin spokeswoman said Naret would not be available for interviews until he takes over in September. But the new director may preside over more changes at Michelin, as reports have begun circulating that the company is considering launching a Red Guide in New York.

A Michelin spokeswoman said, "Michelin is studying whether to do lodging and restaurant guides outside Europe, including the United States," but hasn't made any decisions yet.

As for Brown, he hinted that he would work after retiring from Michelin, but added, "I won't set myself up as a consultant -- and I won't write a book."

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Read more about Derek Brown and the Michelin guides:

  • March 2, 2001
    Michelin Guide's New English Director Speaks Out

  • Aug. 31, 2000
    Seeing Red
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