An Open Letter To Jean-Luc Naret of the Michelin Guide

Last week, John Mariani of Esquire magazine interviewed the just-retired director of the Michelin Guide, Jean-Luc Naret. The 2011 New York guide is heading for press, and there will be a Chicago guide next year as well, and Mariani caught Naret as he was stuck in traffic in midtown Manhattan.

Asked why the famous red book pulled out of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Naret got his dander up and replied, “The
people in Los Angeles are not real foodies. They are not too interested
in eating well but just in who goes to which restaurant and where they

Really, M. Naret?

Dear monsieur:

Given your recent comments on the dining scene in Los Angeles, it is becoming increasingly clear that the problem lies not with our restaurants, but with your criteria and, likely, with your own particular anti-Angeleno bias.

You seem to have bought into the trite, cliché stereotypes that make such wonderful sound bites (forgive me for using our Los Angeles vernacular) but don't stand up to much examination. Much like your inspection process, which makes no attempt to get to know the capability of the kitchens of the restaurants chosen for review, you appear to have judged an entire city's food by a couple of flying visits.

Stereotypes–rude stereotypes–run both ways. For example, it would be very easy for me to say that all French waiters are rude and that no French main dish is complete without some rich sauce, mounted with at least a hundred grams of butter, enveloping the food. Anyone who has ever suffered through a meal on the Champs-Elysées or in the Place de la Madeleine would say that the stereotype is true, but to say so would be to ignore the huge amount of evidence to the contrary: waitstaff who truly are proud of the food they serve and who listen patiently as a never-ending legion of English-speaking tourists fumble through the names of unfamiliar dishes, and the growing movement toward simplicity that is blossoming everywhere in France. 

So, too, the Los Angeles stereotype is dispelled by just a closer look and a more accepting understanding of how Angelenos dine.

We are, first and foremost, lovers of ethnic cuisines, an ethos woefully underrepresented in the Michelin Guide. Angelenos choose happily between the freshest Mexican seafood, spicy Thai, herb-laden Vietnamese, Middle Eastern meze and spice-bedecked Ethiopian, without a second thought. The rich tapestry of cultures in Los Angeles–what was once called the melting pot–is our birthright and a symbol of the breadth of our taste.[

We tend to eat cheaply. Food is very cheap here, compared to New York, Paris or even San Francisco. We eat à la carte here, something that is extremely expensive to do in the Michelin Guide's home turf; the concept of a set menu is certainly not unknown, but is not usual. Even the much-vaunted Bib Gourmand restaurants in your guides tend to be more expensive than most Angelenos' typical dinner bill. Your laughable assertion that the Michelin Guide's stars are based solely on food is disproved by the shocking ratio of expensive restaurants to cheap eateries, the token inclusion of a grocery in Brooklyn notwithstanding.

We are surprisingly egalitarian when it comes to dining out; fresh, farm-to-market food can be found in surprisingly low-rent places. While it can be difficult to get a reservation at some of the higher-end restaurants, we can walk into a wide range of excellent eateries without notice, and all but a few of the rest can be reserved with one or two days' notice. There are rarely dress codes, and we like it that way: it means we can eat dinner without having it be some massive production.

Incidentally, I recently spent three weeks in France and managed to eat impossibly wonderful food, all without the benefit of your publication and all un-starred by your august arbiters of taste, simply by following my nose and by asking advice from shopkeepers and tobacconists, priests and crêpiers, all of whom were polite in the extreme and passionate about eating the best food. When I enquired of a fromagère at a street market in Lyon whether the excellent bouchon she recommended was in the Michelin Guide, she laughed and said, “No one in Lyon needs le Guide Michelin to eat well.” It seems as though your reputation is not sound even at home.

It would be far more accurate to describe your publication as a guide for well-heeled French travelers in various cities than as the definitive, canonical list of restaurants worth visiting in those cities. The anemic response even in San Francisco, arguably the most French city in the United States and a place more in tune with the concept of terroir than anywhere else in the country, simply states what we lovers of food have known since the Michelin Guide's first U.S. publication: there is little use for a crystallized snapshot a year old, written by outsiders, of one small subset of a city's restaurants, and the birds of your obsolescence are coming home to roost.

Sans rancune, nevertheless, and now that you've moved on from Michelin, I invite you to put aside your preconceptions of what it means to eat in Los Angeles, come back, and be guided to the true gems in our city. They certainly do not match the mold for restaurants included in the Michelin Guide, but it doesn't matter: you will eat very well. There is a reason the Los Angeles Times publishes a weekly feature called “The Find”; there is a reason Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing about his culinary explorations in Los Angeles and her suburbs.

In the meantime, if you will agree to keep your dismissive comments about our city's gastronomy to yourself, I will agree to refrain from mailing your guide back to you with “bon débarras” written on the package.

Je vous prie, cher monsieur, d'accepter l'expression de mes sentiments distingués.

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