Hubbub's the word in the food world this week surrounding the release of the 2011 Michelin Guide San Francisco, the restaurant ranking organization's fifth Bay Area edition. The venerable food institution is entering into its 111th year, having gained a strong following in New York and San Francisco and anticipating an upcoming launch in Chicago (next time, LA).
Hot topics around the champagne cooler? Chez Panisse losing its star and The Restaurant at Meadowood achieving the rare feat of gaining three stars (making it and French Laundry the only Bay Area 'straunts to make the grade). Read on for Michelin Jean Luc Naret's reflections and a list of the Bay's Michelin-honored restaurants for 2011.
I chatted with Naret -- a charming Frenchman based in Paris who generally spends three weeks out of every month traveling around the globe -- over espresso at the Slanted Door yesterday. On an idyllic October day, the nostalgic glow on the Bay was befitting -- Naret is departing Michelin in January after seven years with the company, though he'll stay tied to its future in a consulting role.
Naret describes San Francisco as "one of the finest culinary regions in the world... I love this place. It's a region where I spend a lot of time". He hints that he's considering getting a place in Marin, maybe Tiburon, laughingly adding, "So, if anyone is listening?"
What does the arbiter of taste see as our unique contribution in the food realm? Naret names categories where the Bay Area excels: technique ("You don't burn anything anymore" he jokes, I think) and produce. He claims the general culinary mindset changed here in large part due to the "willingness of chefs" to grow or source every kind of produce locally, not to mention the development of talent that was necessary "to make it perfect".
"Fifteen years ago in France we never heard the word 'organic'", Naret says. "That came from here. [The Bay Area] has a big influence -- similar to Japan -- where seasonality is also very important".
Successfully launching Michelin in America was one of Naret's key accomplishment during his years as director, so what does he see as the US' greatest culinary strength? In one word: "Diversity". He mentions the myriad of cuisines available. "You can get anything in New York," he says, adding that the breadth of food culture in our great cities enriches the dining world.
Looking back on the last seven years, Naret shared that his biggest surprise came when he joined Michelin from the outside, one of only six directors to do so since 1900. He pushed boundaries in the company by asking questions like: "Why not go to the States? To Asia?"
He's delighted to see that seven years later -- he planned on acting in the post for no longer than five -- he's managed to leave a legacy that feels complete. "Everything we said we'd do, we've done. We've reached new territories." He says the future of Michelin includes the ranking system's continued expansion to other cities -- along with growth in technology output like the global spread of Michelin iPhone apps already common in Europe.
All signs show that the world is ready. Heads of state and people from Michelin-less countries -- Singapore among them -- have contacted Naret him to ask when their cities will be getting their own guides. In Tokyo (which now stands as the city with the most three star restaurants in the world) the area's first Michelin guide sold 150,000 copies in a shocking 24 hours. It would appear that the massive influence Michelin has long held in Europe has a firm grasp on epicures around the world.
Naret keeps mum about the mysterious business venture he'll launch promptly after leaving Michelin after a mere two weeks vacation. On this October day, he's in reflection mode: "I'm very happy to leave a beautiful legacy".
The 2011 SF Michelin Guide officially releases today. Michelin Guide New York 2011 debuted Oct. 6 and the very first Chicago guide will be released November 17. Subscribe to Virgina's twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot.
Bay Area restaurants awarded coveted Michelin stars in its 2011 edition
(N = new to this year's guide)
THREE STARS: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey
The French Laundry
The Restaurant at Meadowood (N)
TWO STARS: Excellent cuisine, worth a detour
ONE STAR: A very good restaurant in its category
Alexander’s Steakhouse (N)
Auberge de Soleil
Campton Place (N)
The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton
Dio Deka (N)
Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant
Fleur de Lys
The Village Pub