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," said Ellis.
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:
- Expand the listings, including more cities in Asia, and add more U.S. cities. (Currently, only New York, Chicago and San Francisco are reviewed.)
- Widen the scope of the restaurants reviewed. It's a misconception that Michelin is strictly high-end, said Ellis. Only about 10 percent of reviews are starred restaurants. There also are a number of restaurants included that don't have stars but are judged worthy of a visit, as well as the "Bib Gourmande" rankings of more casual places. Still, Ellis would like to see the guides get more comprehensive with coverage of such things as the best places to go for family pizza night.
- Increase the guide's online presence and identify new sources of income. Michelin has e-books and mobile apps and in France has launched a restaurant search engine with a promotional component. Only places that have been endorsed by Michelin inspectors are listed, but those that have made the cut can pay about $90 a month for a "visibility pack" that makes their listing more prominent. The French website also has a comment section. "People look for opinions now," Ellis said.
In a way, Michelin Guide faces the same problem as hallowed restaurants like Maxim's in Paris or the 21 Club in New York, said Andrews. "How do they modernize without losing their core identity? It's hard for restaurants to do it; I think it's hard for Michelin to do it."
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."
Leading Michelin Guides is "a dream come true," said Ellis, who was smitten with all things French on his first trip to France as a 16-year-old on a high school trip. He resolved to train as a chef and got so far as working as an apprentice at a Michelin one-star restaurant before realizing "that I was probably more cut out to be a client of a restaurant."
But he remained keenly interested in food, regularly mining the Michelin guides for place to take business clients to lunch and dinner in his subsequent career working in various hospitality related jobs in Europe. He joined Michelin in 2007, heading up the motorcycle tire division, and got the call for his current job after mentioning in a regular career counseling session that he'd be interested in working with the guides.
"I literally fell out of my seat and said, 'Ok, I'll think about it... Yes!'" Ellis said with a laugh.
Married to a Frenchwoman and fluent in French, not to mention Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Ellis has "a great love and respect for France and most, I won't say all things French, but most things French and I think the French appreciate that in me, certainly."
But despite all those years abroad, Ellis hasn't gone the way of Madonna. His words are still delivered in a Standard American English accent.
"That I'll never give up," he said with a smile.