Briton takes over Michelin guide

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Imagine for a moment that an unknown Frenchman had been appointed to edit the Wisden cricket almanac or Debrett's Peerage.

Imagine for a moment that an unknown Frenchman had been appointed to edit the Wisden cricket almanac or Debrett's Peerage.

You have some idea of the sense of shock spreading through the world of French gastronomy yesterday at the news that the next head of the Michelin guides - the bible of Gallic food-dom - is to be a Briton. His name is Derek Brown. He is 59. He has worked for Michelin most of his professional life, starting asan anonymous restaurant inspector in Britain at the age of 30. He used to be head of the Michelin guides for Britain and Ireland. He is now head of communications for the Michelin group in Asia.

Otherwise, little is known of Mr Brown in France and not much in Britain. Michelin prefers it that way. The Michelin guides, despite their ebullient tyre-man symbol, have a cult of anonymity, secrecy and independence.

Mr Brown was said to be "travelling" yesterday and unable to comment on his appointment as the head of all the Michelin guides - and in effect the chief arbiter of gastronomic excellence in France - from the new year.

Le Figaro regarded his appointment as so startling that it reported the development on its front page, just below the fall of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. "The velvet world of haute cuisine" was deeply shaken by the news, the newspaper reported.

Ian McKerracher, chief executive of the Restaurant Association in Britain, said yesterday: "I have heard of Derek Brown but I have never met him. When he was the head of Michelin here he was inscrutable and invisible, which is the way Michelin likes it. He never let the mask fall."

The appointment comes at a time when the Michelin guides, and their system of awarding up to three stars for the finest restaurants, are under increasing attack abroad and in France.

This year, for the first time, a French one-star restaurant asked to be demoted to a cheaper category. Its owner said that his customers were no longer interested in elaborate, fussy and expensive haute cuisine, as increasingly defined by Michelin inspectors. Michelin guides to restaurants in other countries, from Ireland to Spain, have been criticised for failing to understand or appreciate most non-French, and certainly non-European, approaches to cooking.

Jean-Frédéric DuRoux, a spokesman for the Michelin guides, said that Mr Brown's appointment had provoked "much discussion" when announced to a conference of three-star chefs in Paris on Thursday. He said, however, that it would be wrong to assume Mr Brown had been appointed because he was a foreigner or that his brief was to "shake up" the Michelin guides. He had been appointed because he was regarded as someone "steeped in the Michelin traditions, who would be best able to preserve and extend our reputation for honesty, independence and openness to change."

The first public reaction of the leading French chefs was guarded-to-positive. (It is in no one's interest to annoy Mr Brown: a constellation of stars is at stake). Michel Guérard of the three-starred Prÿs d'Eugénie restaurant at Eugénie-les-Bains in south-western France said it was "positive for French cuisine to open out to the world at a time of globalisation". He said he preferred someone with an "international outlook" to someone who would take a "little French" approach.

The Michelin guide, celebrating its centenary this year, began as a simple list of recommended hotels, restaurants and garages for the earliest motorists. Even now Michelin officials grow irritated with the media concentration on its "starred" restaurants. They point out that the guides contain hundreds of places to eat, from the cheapest to the most elaborate.

Critics of the Michelin system claim, however, that there has been a drift in recent years towards awarding stars to restaurants as much for theopulence and pretentiousness of their style as for the quality of their food.

Mr Brown's appointment will have little impact on the next guide, which is due at the end of February. His influence on the 2002 guide will be closely observed.