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Michelin is becoming more American with its restaurant guides. The tire company just announced it will publish a guide in November for Chicago, its third U.S. city. (New York came first in 2005, with San Francisco the next year.) The dining directories, begun 110 years ago, are based on secret visits by a staff of 90 trained critics, a method that seems increasingly old-fashioned—and costly—as other ratings outfits from the Zagat Survey to Yelp rely on volunteers.
While Michelin executives were in Chicago to promote its latest edition, I caught up with Parmeet Grover, chief operating officer of Michelin’s Travel & Lifestyle unit in North America.
Grover does not have a gourmand’s background. He hired on with Michelin’s U.S. subsidiary in Greenville, S.C., in 1996, after receiving a PhD in engineering from Georgia Tech. He moved into his current role last year. Grover says he’s been a “foodie” from way back, however. “If you go back to Renaissance times,” he told me, “being technical doesn’t prevent one from having other interests that range quite widely,”
Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
Q: With Chicago, the guide will be in three cities in the U.S. What’s the plan for expanding further?
A: Globally, this will be our 26th city. And in the U.S. there are some large cities we’re looking at. You could imagine they’d be in the vein of the ones we’ve already done.
Q: Do you see adding another city in 2012?
A: I can’t comment on that right now.
Q: How has American cuisine changed in the last several years?
A: I think changes in American cuisine represent the changes in our society. If you look at the diversity of the country, it has increased over the last two decades. As a result, there is a lot of fusion cuisine.
But I think we may be onto another important trend, which is using a lot more natural ingredients, locally sourced ingredients. I see this even in Greenville, S.C., where my family is based.
Q: Michelin is doing things the way it’s done for more than a century, sending in trained reviewers anonymously. Aren’t you behind the times now that everybody is doing crowdsourcing?
A: In terms of the wisdom of the crowds, we respect it. But I think what we bring is another perspective that nobody else has. We are using professionals who know cuisine very, very well. What we have developed over the last 100 years is a process that’s worked very well. When we say it’s one star or two stars, whether it’s in London or Tokyo or New York or one day somewhere in Africa, it means the same thing.
Q: So that’s your advantage—you can get consistency because you know who your raters are?
A: Exactly. We are a company of engineers, so we have a process that is followed rigorously. And we never compromise.
Q: Is there any built-in bias in that training, however, that would favor a traditional French restaurant over another?
A: Not at all. I go back to something in the DNA of our company. We have five values, and I haven’t seen too many companies with this fifth value, which is respect for facts. When we go in to rate a restaurant or award the stars, it’s purely objective, based on what is in that plate, what has been cooked that day.
Q: How many times is each restaurant visited?
Ten times sometimes. And it’s not the same person. We have many different people that go, and all of the information is put into a data base and analysis is done.
Q: Your employees have been out eating in Chicago restaurants how long to get prepared for the new guide?
A: It’s been two years now. We take this very seriously.
Q: So I take it you’ve got employees in other cities that we don’t know about doing the same sort of covert operations.
A: That is correct. And what’s funny is that some of the families don’t know either what they’re doing. They need to maintain their anonymity. We are very serious about the confidentiality of it, which is the key to staying objective.
Even at Michelin, everybody has never met these people. My first impression was that they would all be rather heavy-set men. But that’s not true. We have men, and we have women, and they seem to be normal. You wouldn’t be able to guess what they really do.
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