Michelin's secret army of spies edges into light

US restaurant critics break with French tradition by giving interviews
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Michelin brought its prestigious restaurant guides to the US, purists wondered how the famous French obsession with starched linen and the right sort of fricassée would sit with the culinary culture of a nation that invented fast-food and the all-you-can-eat buffet. The answer, it seems, is not very comfortably. Three years after they crossed the Atlantic, the publishers of haute cuisine's little red book have been forced to compromise a core principle: the anonymity of their secretive reviewers.

Sacrificing a century of tradition on the altar of commercialism, Michelin has decided that the critics behind its two US editions, in San Francisco and New York, must embrace the tweeting era by posting comments on Twitter and discussing the dark arts of their trade on an internet site.

They began tweeting this week, kick-starting an initiative that may eventually shed light on the byzantine process by which the world's top restaurants win those prized stars. "Fighting off a cold, and Pho Minh in Cupertino hit the spot, steaming pho was loaded with jalapeños and herbs ... definitely Vietnamese penicillin," reads a comment of one of the firm's men in California. A reviewer in New York, with the Twitter identity MichelinInspectorNY, announced that he was lunching at a restaurant called Jaiya. "Renovations still under way but lookin' good," he noted.

The informal tone represents a severe cultural shift for Michelin, which is traditionally so secretive that employees, who visit at least 200 restaurants each year, must invent cover stories to prevent even loved ones discovering their identity.

The new strategy reflects the struggle Michelin has had to gain a toe-hold in the US marketplace, which is still dominated by Zagat – which uses reader comments to rate restaurants – and the internet site TripAdvisor. When new Michelin editions covering New York and San Francisco are launched next month, reviewers, who are usually banned from speaking publicly, will give interviews on a special site, www.famouslyanonymous.com. Ryan Lynch, its creator, said he hoped to lay bare the reviewers' secret lives. "There's kind of a Da Vinci Code, a little James Bond feel, to who they are and how they go about working, and your imagination tends to run wild with it," he told The New York Times.

In France, folk-lore has grown up around Michelin staff, who are thought surreptitiously to scrawl notes under tablecloths, or in toilets, and pay chaperones to accompany them, to avoid arousing suspicion by dining alone.

The thinking behind the new US openness is to highlight that Michelin is one of the only guides on the market that relies on the opinions of paid experts. "One of the things we realised when we started to question people: ... they didn't realise that this was about a team of professionals," said the director of Michelin guides, Jean-Luc Naret.

But, to appease traditionalists, reviewers will not be fully named, or photographed. And outside of America, there are no plans for Michelin to step further into the world of social networking.

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