Michelin Guide: Interview, Worldwide Director Michael Ellis

Posted on: October 7th, 2013 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Michael Ellis Michelin

Michael Ellis, Michelin.

Michael Ellis quietly took the international helm of the Michelin Guides from Jean-Luc Naret a couple of years ago.  In what is perhaps a European web first, Michael gives an in-depth interview with fine dining guide.  Interview took place at Grainstore, St Pancras, September 25th 2013.  Here is what Michael had to say:-

What are your exact roles and responsibilities within Michelin?

I currently look after all editorial and production activities of the Michelin Guides worldwide.  That covers over twenty Guides in over twenty countries.  Some, for example, such as Great Britain & Ireland, France, Germany and Italy have their own national guides, whereas other books will reflect cities around the world such as New York, San Francisco and Tokyo.

The global team of inspectors and writers that produce those guides are my responsibility.  There are editorial leaders in each region – US, Europe and Asia – who report directly into me regarding the operational running of each team in each geography.

Tell us some background about yourself?

Born in the United States, I studied modern European languages at university; principally French, Spanish and Italian.  This also involved traveling overseas and I quickly learned that living abroad might be appealing.

On a visit in 1979, I decided that I would train as a chef in Paris! I worked for my CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnel) and spent a year working in a Michelin starred kitchen.  While it was a great learning experience, the regimented regime coupled with long hours was perhaps too much for me so I decided I would make a better customer than chef.

I finished my studies back in the USA before returning to France in the mid 1980s to complete an MBA at INSEAD. I worked through various sales and marketing positions: From wines and spirits to packaging to Club Med cruises before being recruited by Michelin to look after sales and marketing for their Motorcycle Division.

I had always been a fan of The Michelin Guides, both personally and professionally; they had proven a kind of bible when travelling with customers on business or indeed when just looking for a great restaurant for pleasure. So in a career review meeting I asked if anything might be available in The Michelin Guides and some weeks later I found myself in this role.  I’ve been thoroughly enjoying every minute of the job.

How has the transition been from Jean-Luc Naret’s tenure?

I believe it is more a case of continuing a philosophy (and the values) of Michelin going forward, something which transcends any individual in a role. There are on-going parameters around which any restaurant will be assessed for ‘star entry’ into the Michelin Guides. This is therefore about a process not a person:-

1) The freshness, quality and preparation of the ingredients

2) The mastery of cooking techniques

3) The harmony and equilibrium of the flavours in a finished dish

4) The demonstration of the personality of the chef (a signature)

5) Consistency over time and across the menu.

6) Value for money

Personally, I may bring an international angle, a culinary curiosity, that may flavour my relationship with the inspectors – a value-add to reflect back the ever expanding vibrancy and diversity on show in cooking around the world.  Just to re-iterate, this would remain within the defining parameters of decision making just discussed.

What interesting trends do you see in dining in Europe and more specifically GBI and London?

London today is one of the most exciting, vibrant and dynamic food destinations in the world.  You could not have said this twenty or thirty years ago.  There is a move to more casual dining, all day dining and smaller plates.  The over-whelming trend in a city like London is the expanding diversity of choice: from high quality Nordic cooking through to Peruvian: From single concept dining to all day bistros; in fact the list goes on and it is important to have a guide that reflects the diversity of choice of quality restaurants.

Thirty years ago London ‘fine dining’ was about the anglo-French Michelin multi-starred institutions; chefs like Albert Roux, Nico Ladenis and Pierre Koffmann.  Today there are a group of seasoned chefs who are British and importantly spawning a British ‘identity of fine dining’; chefs like Phil Howard and Marcus Wareing for example.  The idea of ‘modern British cooking’ is now alive and well and that’s great to see.

How do you see Michelin compared to ‘reader-led’ guides such as Trip Advisor, Zagat (Google +)?

Michelin is strictly an inspector-driven guide, in that professional inspectors make decisions about inclusion in the guide.  However, in France alone, the guide receives over 40,000 emails or letters a year.  These tend to be from passionate people advising Michelin about their experiences with restaurants or hotels.  The guide is very much reader inclusive in this way and the feedback provides a clear radar for what is happening in the market.

In general with the blogosphere and web based feedback – everyone is a critic, some good, some not so good.  Amongst all this noise you have to ask “What is the gold standard?” “Where is the North Star?”  Michelin is about providing a clear professional benchmark of reliable quality to readers through full time inspectors who are anonymous and pay their own bills.

How do you ensure a star in New York equals a star in Paris equals a star in Tokyo?

Two ways.  First is that the common framework or methodology is applied across all geographies – the guiding parameters for inclusion previously discussed.  The second is that the inspectors travel a lot and get to prove their benchmarking across geographies.

A distinct dining trend is to the “informal” and “accessible”, how does the guide reflect this trend?

The Michelin Guide is not a trend predictor nor a consultant to the industry, however as a window reflecting what is happening on the culinary landscape, trends will be reflected back in the guide.

Certainly around much of the world a difficult economic environment has prevailed and this has affected restaurants like any other industry.  Chefs have noted the need to change and adapt their product to meet the changing needs of the consumer.  The award of Bib Gourmand has become popular in this area, where you can enjoy a three course meal of quality for under £28 in Britain or 31 Euro in France. We find this a popular and expanding aspect of the Michelin recognitions.

What are the keys to staying relevant and solvent in the information age?

Riding the digital and mobile wave is very important.  Our offerings are incorporating the latest ideas, innovations and technologies in their digital applications.  There is a strong core base to the paper product, albeit paper publishing not being a growth industry.  There remains the fact that the  digital product and paper product are not mutually exclusive, for the time being at least customers may own both versions.

How do you feel about the fact that the top end chefs of the world see Michelin stars as a career benchmarking award?

It is a great honour and most humbling when I hear from chefs how important the recognitions are to them.  This will remain of value so long as Michelin maintain the right standards and apply the guiding parameters developed over many years.  I think respect comes from credibility and we hope to maintain that mutual respect going forward.

Any plans for new city coverage?

The core theme for the time being is to consolidate our position in the geographies we have entered.  We keep our eyes open about new opportunities but for the medium term we are consolidating.

A GB Financial Times article a couple of years ago talked about the cost of the Guide…what about the value?

The guides were created by the founders of the company; Andre and Edouard Michelin to support the development of the tyre business and are now part of a large and successful multi-national corporation and are very much part of the culture of that corporation – a part of the Michelin Corporate DNA that creates enormous value around the visibility of the brand as well as communicating the values of quality, rigour and methodology.

The UK Good Food Guide was recently sold by Which? to Waitrose (Major Food Store), any plans for Michelin PLC to sell “The Guide”?

In 1900 the Michelin brothers said the company was born into one century and will see in the next.  The Guide books will be around and part of the corporation for some considerable time to come!