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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Jean-Luc Naret

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-10

Jean-Luc Naret of France rewards stars by awarding them stars.

"It's recognition of excellence, something that's hard-earned by establishments," the director of Michelin Guides and Maps said the other day during a breezy visit to New York.

New York, of course, figures prominently in the Michelin constellation - it's one of the dozens of cities for which the 106-year-old French company produces an annual guide, complete with stars that are so coveted by restaurants that the absence of one can cause frissons of alarm among owners, and chuckles among rivals. In scarcely four months since publication of the guide, more than 100,000 copies have been sold. (Globally, 20 million copies of Michelin guides are sold each year.)

And now, pleased that its New York debut this year was commercially and critically successful, Mr. Naret is expanding the Michelin guides to other cities in America. San Francisco will be next. Then Miami. Washington, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles will follow.

La premiere Europe, puis New York. Apres New York, L'Amerique. Et ainsi de suite. "After Europe, New York. After New York, the rest of America - and so on." Mr. Naret plans to publish guides to Asian cities as well.

"We were very strong in Europe for years and years," Mr. Naret said. "But when I came to Michelin three years ago, I was determined to cross the Atlantic and do American cities - and what better place to begin than New York?"

Only four New York restaurants were given the highest number of stars - three - and they did not include the one in which Mr. Naret was dining on this day with a reporter and a Michelin colleague, Fabienne de Brebisson. Earlier in the day, the owners of The Four Seasons had signaled some displeasure that Michelin hadn't even awarded one star to their 47-year-old restaurant, while 36 other restaurants received one or more stars. A newcomer across Park Avenue, Lever House, had won one.

What gives?

Mr. Naret smiled sweetly.

After several visits last year, he said, his inclination had been to bestow at least one star on the restaurant. But none of Michelin's four or five inspectors who'd dined there separately shared that view.

So why didn't he overrule his inspectors?

"I rarely overrule our inspectors," Mr. Naret said. "The integrity of the evaluation process is paramount. You may disagree with our choice of stars, but no one can question our methods."

The methods are meticulous. Michelin employs 80 fulltime inspectors, of whom 15 work in France. (It takes 3 to 5 years to fully train Michelin inspectors.) Inspectors anonymously visit each restaurant or hotel three or four in a particular city. In 2005, for example, inspectors traveled 30,000 kilometers, spent 150 nights in hotels, and had 300 lunches and dinners.

They spent more than $10 million on their investigations. (Of about 45,000 restaurants that figure in Michelin guides, only 1,500 are starred.) In New York alone, inspectors - both native American as well as Europeans who'd been specially dispatched to produce the inaugural guide - spent $1 million selecting 507 out of the city's 23,000 restaurants.

"We view our expenditures as an investment, not as a cost - it's a question of strengthening our brand-equity image," Mr. Naret said. "We do not accept any sponsorship; we do not accept free meals. If there's one thing that I emphasize about our research, it's integrity, integrity and integrity."

Four restaurants, Per Se, Le Bernardin, Alain Ducasse, and Jean-Georges, received a three-star rating for providing "an exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey," according to Mr. Naret.

Four other restaurants received a two-star rating providing "excellent cooking, worth a detour," 31 received a one-star rating for being "a very good restaurant in its category," and 468 additional restaurants were selected in the guide as they provide a quality experience that Michelin recommends trying, Mr. Naret said.

"Our stars are not engraved in marble but in crystal - which is to say that, like crystal, they can shatter," Mr. Naret said, alluding to the fact that Michelin has been known to withdraw stars from establishments that do not measure up to the company's continuing scrutiny. Famous chefs have been known to spiral into depression when thus demoted - and not long ago a French chef committed suicide.

How does Mr. Naret deal with the pressures of awarding stars?

"You cannot please everybody," he said.

Those words seemed harsher than Mr. Naret intended. Indeed, he has an emollient personality - a genial smile rarely leaves his face - and, as a result, Mr. Naret has become one of France's most popular public figures.

His popularity doesn't only flow from his movie-star looks and congeniality. Mr. Naret has a robust record in the hospitality industry, having managed and built luxury hotels for the last 20 years not only across Europe but also in Asia.

The only child of an insurance-industry executive, Charles Naret, and his wife Simone, Mr. Naret attended all the right schools and graduated with distinction from Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Hotels had been his first love from childhood.

"As a child, I would point to hotels whenever my parents took me for walks - and say, 'I want to own that one, and that one," Mr. Naret said.

His route to the hotel industry was through the railway. At 21, he obtained the prestigious job of manager of the revived Orient Express train from Paris to Venice through sheer luck.

"I was supposed to be the food and beverage manager on the inaugural journey - and he fell ill with nerves," Mr. Naret recalled. "So I was given an instant field promotion!"

He showed self-confidence and finesse in handling the job.

"I believe in always being optimistic," Mr. Naret said. "Give me any job, and my first reaction is, 'Yes, I can do it!' I've always had confidence in life."

Such an attitude - and his demonstrated competence - won him the backing of major investors in subsequent years as Mr. Naret built hotels in various resorts, including Barbados. He also won the loyalty of colleagues through his collegial but strict management style.

One colleague even composed a verse about Mr. Naret in appreciation:

"Il nous a tenus au bord, il nous a demande de voler, il nous a pousses - et nous sommes alles voler." ("He stood us at the edge, he asked us to fly, he pushed us - and we went flying.")

Praise of this sort embarrasses Mr. Naret, not the least because he believes that the key to a service industry such as his - hospitality and publishing - is teamwork.

"I feel very proud to be part of an institution that's so much bigger than the reputation of any one person," Mr. Naret said. "I always believe in taking one's job seriously, but not oneself."

He said he has inculcated that belief in his children, Thomas, 15, and twins Alexandra and Chloe, 13. Mr. Naret and his wife Odile frequently take them on foreign trips to see for themselves how people - particularly less fortunate ones - live; the children have already visited 51 countries with their parents.

"In this rapidly changing world, nothing can be taken for granted," Mr. Naret said. "The key to understanding change is to understand people in different cultures. Better to start while one is young."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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