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An Eater Moment With: Michelin Director Jean-Luc Naret

With all this hubbub surrounding next week's launch of the Los Angeles and Las Vegas Michelin guides, we thought it was finally time to whip out this interview we have with Michelin director Jean-Luc Naret. He was in town several months ago and took the time to answer everything you ever wanted to know about the guides but were afraid to ask: Why does he care about LA, and why do we care that he cares? What's with the stars, and we're not talking the celebrity kind. Who are these "inspectors," and how do we sign up? And will Pink's Hot Dogs make the cut? Awards for the LA and Vegas guides will be announced at noon on Monday, November 12; the books debut to the public on November 14.

Why did Michelin come to the US?
When I took over four years ago, I knew that there is a lot of respect for the Michelin guides over the world, but we were only covering Europe. I said let's move to the States, let's start in New York City as a natural point of entry. We published that in 2005, it's been well over 125,000 copies sold, mostly to New Yorkers. We had more than 37 types of cuisine in the guide, the most diverse we've done. We did San Francisco last year, and it was well received.

Do you feel competitive against Zagat?
It's not one against the other; it's just a different view. We're not out here to compete with anyone. We're saying this is what we found. We use a lot of humility. We'll be doing it every year.

How do you think the LA restaurant scene differs from others?
It's definitely more casual, but I like to go to restaurants in jeans or a tie. You can have a very good product and it doesn't have to be too fancy. Or too drastic. Now, of course, here in California, a very minimalist view of the restaurant scene is about the celebrities. But for us, it's all about the food. We were at Cut, and Katie and Tom Cruise were there, but that's not why we were there. I don't agree that people just go to a restaurant for the celebrity factor.

How did you select the restaurants for the LA guide?
We start by working out a master list, which is based on the recommendations of restaurants in other guides and everything else. Each restaurant is visited by inspectors, for one lunch and one dinner. The inspectors are in charge of walking and driving through the neighborhoods to look for places missed on the master list, then they decide what needs to be included. Through this, we did come away with new restaurants that maybe not everyone else covered.

Tell us more about these "inspectors."
We have 10 for the area, a team from the West Coast, some from SF and LA, also doing Las Vegas. We received more than 3,000 applications for the job, it's a full-time job. We find the candidate, we meet with them over a lunch, and then we have them critique the restaurant to see if they have an eye for detail and a passion for food. And then we send them to Europe for three months of training, to make sure they understand the Michelin way. They try to fit in, they will dress casual if they go somewhere casual, and nice if they go high-end. They use different names. They really have to blend in. The image of a big fat man taking notes is definitely not what the inspectors look like.

How comprehensive is the LA guide?
We look at the top 200 restaurants. We'll include a limited number without stars. To make the selection already means you're a good restaurant. To get a star means you’re the best of the best. It's really an award to be included.

How do you decide the stars?
It's not based on one report by one person, it's based on different reports by different people, then we meet as a group and decide if it's going to be included and what stars it gets. If an inspector is wrong every time, then we know something is wrong with them, not the restaurant.

What do you think about our chefs?
I think there are some very talented chefs in Los Angeles. Not only the best restaurants in town, but really on par with restaurants in the world.

Why is it so important to be in the Michelin guide?
People trust our selection, whatever country we're in. Some chefs around the world believe that Michelin is the only guide to measure themselves in the world. We have a lot of chefs who say that people want to work with them because of their stars in the Michelin guide. One star in LA is the same in Paris and in Tokyo.

And now there's Vegas.
Ten years ago, Michelin would never have gone to Vegas. It was a great place for gambling and entertainment, and now we're looking at great restaurants, great chefs. We were very surprised by the quality there. A lot of the restaurants will be in the hotels, we'll introduce each hotel, and we'll use all the restaurants in each hotel. And then we'll offer our selections, some will get stars. Then we'll look at other areas like downtown.

So where did you eat in LA?
We went to Cut. I had a sandwich at the Ivy, and I will probably end up at Providence for seafood. Patina is always an interesting place.

What did you think?
I'll save that for the second week of November when the guide comes out.

What about the ethnic restaurants?
In Spain, we offer every type of cuisine. In London, it's definitely one of the most diverse. We give Indian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants stars. I'm traveling to Tokyo 10 times a month, and I'm very impressed with the Japanese cuisine here.

Would you ever consider a place like Pink's for the guide?
You'll see when the guide comes out in the second week of November.

You're a tough nut to crack, Jean-Luc.