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The Tire Man at Borders

There was a panel discussion last week at Borders TWC, with Danny Meyer, Lee Schrager, Mimi Sheraton, Jean-Luc Naret (head tire man), Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Kate Krader, with Mike Colameco as moderator.

The occasion was the release of the Michelin 2010 ratings for New York, although a wide variety of subjects was touched upon.

Naret shared an anecdote that is relevant to those who find the ratings baffling. A number of years ago, a restaurant opened outside Paris to scathing reviews. A year later, the tire man gave it a star. People came up to him, and said, “How on earth can you give a star there? It’s terrible?”

Naret replied, “Have you gone lately?” The answer, invariably, was no. Either they hadn’t gone at all, or they had gone a long time a go. Of course, his point was to emphasize the value (as he sees it) of a system where the restaurants are re-visited and judged by what they are doing now, not what they are reputed to have done many months or years or ago.

The panel was asked whether restaurants are reviewed too early nowadays. Every one of them said, in different ways, that once you are charging full price, you are fair game to be reviewed. Danny Meyer, however, said that he thinks good restaurants keep getting better and better over time. But Vongerichten said that a restaurant is at its best in the first two months, and thereafter it is a struggle to keep it that way. That is certainly an accurate description of his own places.

Meyer, in a nice way, pointed out the difference between himself and Vongerichten. Meyer hires chefs who stay full-time, or close to full-time, in their kitchens. Vongerichten launches a restaurant and moves on to the next one. He has been remarkably successful at it; however, he clearly has the problem of ensuring quality in kitchens where he is seldom physically present, whereas Meyer hires chefs who stay put.

They all thought that critic anonymity, though challenging to achieve, is both possible and important. Sheraton said that she once wrote an article for Vanity Fair about all the things a chef or restaurant can change once they know a critic is in the house. She said that after the article was published, a chef acquaintance called her up and said, “You don’t know the half of it.”

Naret, of course, claimed that his system is the best, because nobody knows who his inspectors are. Coincidentally, I received an e-mail last week from someone who has been a sommelier at a two-star Michelin restaurant. She said that they were at least two occasions that they knew an inspector was in the house. So even tire men are recognized sometimes.

Naret was asked about highly dissimilar restaurants having identical star ratings (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and The Spotted Pig, for instance). He said that the reader can tell from the number of couverts (little crossed knife+fork icons in the guide) that the restaurants are very different styles. This was an understandable answer from a fellow who makes his money by selling books. But to the average consumer the stars are much more recognizable than the humble couverts.

I asked Naret how many visits are required to either confer or take away a star; and after the decision is made, how much time goes by before the restaurant is revisited. His answer wasn’t as specific as I would have liked. He said that most restaurants listed in the guide (that’s over 600 places) were visited only once or twice, but that Daniel (elevated to three stars this year) was visited eight times.

The whole panel was asked whether professional reviews matter any more in the age of food boards and blogs. They all said that, while reviews matter less than they used to, the New York Times review is still the gold standard in New York. It moves the needle the way no other review can. Most also said that chefs consider Michelin stars a higher honor than any media review.

Danny Meyer thought that blogs and food boards definitely matter, because they are seen by more people than if an individual diner just tells a few friends about their meal. Jean-Georges admitted that he looks at online reviews when he is visiting an unfamiliar city, and Krader admitted that she looks at Yelp. But Mimi Sheraton thought that the food board and blog community is insular, and that the reviews in those forums are not much noticed beyond a small community of like-minded people.

Reader Comments (4)

I would disagree with Mr. Meyer in that Chef Vongerichten and his organization do, in fact, hire full-time chefs that remain in place once Chef Vongerichten has moved on. This is the same for Daniel Boulud, Drew Nieporent, Alain Ducasse, Stephen Starr, Mario Batali, and any other restaurateur (who may or may not also be a "celebrity chef") with a large and/or geographically divers restaurant portfolio. In fact, one could argue that the opportunity to work in a Vongerichten / Boulud / Ducasse restaurant is likely to attract the premier talent in the local market, both on the culinary and service sides.

While Mr. Meyer does not have the same level of acclaim as a chef or designer of recipes as the "celebrity chefs" mentioned above, his role as a business owner and restaurateur is not so different from theirs once a restaurant group has been created. Really, they operate the same way.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

I think there is a distinction between a restaurant that claims JGV as an absentee chef (albeit with a trained staff left behind), and another where the head guy is physically present most of the time.

I found telling Vongerichten's view that a restaurant is at its best in the first two months, after which it is a constant struggle to keep them that way; whereas Meyer said that he thinks they keep getting better and better after the opening period.

As I recall, Vongerichten did not seem to feel that Meyer's description was unfair. If anything, he seemed to be agreeing with it.

October 14, 2009 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

Maybe it ends up as a question of terminology. In other words, what is meant by "head guy", by Danny Meyer's definition, or JG's, or yours? As an example, does Gavin Kaysen have less of a role (or, for that matter, get less of a billing) as the primary chef of Cafe Boulud than does Gabriel Kreuther as chef of the Modern? I would argue not, and that the differences are:
1) Cafe Boulud ALSO has the marketing angle of being associated with a celebrity chef, and
2) Cafe Boulud's menu is, at least in significant part, designed by a chef (Boulud) other than one who is in the kitchen cooking every day (Kaysen), whereas Chef Kreuther most likely has more responsibility for the recipes
Probably a long-winded way of making an argument that the "head guy" is still in these celebrity chef-driven restaurants every day, and that the only real "distinction" between those restaurants and Danny Meyer's restaurants, for instance, are that they have a more singular source of both marketing and culinary inspiration. The execution is, in theory, carried out by the same level of professional.
In any case, I agree it's definitely an interesting discussion and difference of perspective between two talented guys.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

I agree, the Boulud analogy is highly relevant.

Vongerichten has opened quite a few places that are widely perceived to have declined after his day-to-day involvement with them ended (in NYC alone: Spice Market, Mercer Kitchen, Vong, JoJo). Danny Meyer, of course, was far too polite to say this directly, but it had to be on people’s minds, including JGV himself.

Boulud’s places, at least in New York, are not perceived to have suffered any such decline. It could be because Boulud is a better manager, that he hires better people, or some other reason. I don’t know.

In fairness to Danny Meyer, he did not use the precise words “head guy.” That’s my paraphrase of what he said. There is clearly a difference between his management model and JGV’s. Which one is better is debatable. I can think of several “pure restauranteurs” whose restaurants have nothing like the consistent quality of Danny Meyer’s, for instance Jeffrey Chodorow. Meyer was not saying that his model was better. He was only explaining what had worked for him personally.

October 14, 2009 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

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