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American Michael Ellis leads French Michelin guide

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Entertainment,Associated Press

Something new is in the stars for the Michelin Guide -- the French restaurant-reviewing institution is getting an American accent.

Colorado-born Michael Ellis, who took over the job early this year but made his debut U.S. tour as ambassador of the guides this fall, is the first American to head the Michelin Guide.

The idea that an American would be put in charge of "this bible of French gastronomy is kind of a big deal," says Colman Andrews, editorial director of TheDailyMeal.com. "The Guide Michelin is such a French institution, it would have been unthinkable even probably 10 years ago to think that an American would ever run it."

Another big deal: Ellis' challenge of finding a way to keep the guides relevant, and solvent, in an eat-and-tweet world.

As Ellis pointed out during a recent interview on a foggy morning along the San Francisco waterfront, "There's a lot of noise out there."

Founded in 1900 by brothers and tire makers Edouard and Andre Michelin, the Michelin Red Guide listed places to get gas, food and other necessities to encourage motorists to get on the road, a good thing for the tire business. In 1926 the company introduced its star-rating system for restaurants and in time being a one-, two- or three-star Michelin chef became a byword for quality.

But though having a high Michelin ranking can be a significant boost to a restaurant's takings, none of that revenue has been going to the guides, whose main source of revenue has been the sale of printed books. "Paper products are not a growth industry, I'll put it that way," Ellis said.

Last year, the Financial Times reported the guides were losing millions of dollars annually. Company officials don't divulge internal figures, but say they've made significant financial changes since then.

Ellis has a number of other changes under consideration:

Ellis thinks it's the Michelin legacy that makes it uniquely fitted to take on the challenges of the Internet age.

"We have our respected core -- our professionals, they're food professionals," he said. "They're salaried Michelin employees; they're anonymous, so no one knows who they are, and they always pay their check. So they really have experiences that the ordinary customer would have, unlike, say, food writers or journalists that can be recognized or don't pay their bills sometimes. That really gives us the independence that I think no one else has."

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