In conjunction with the release of the new star rankings for the Bay Area Michelin Guide for 2015 today, SFist spoke with the guide's international director Michael Ellis. Ellis took the gig in 2011 and at the time of the first guide under his leadership he told Grub Street, "I've lived in France now for over 25 years. But having worked briefly as a chef in my twenties, and having that in my blood, [working on the Michelin Guide has] just been amazing."
The guide was first printed by the French tire company in 1900 as a way to encourage new drivers unaccustomed to car travel to explore their country's dining and lodging options. It has since become an international force to be reckoned with, and arguably the most trusted restaurant ranking in the world, with guidebooks covering much of western Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, the United States, and now Brazil.
Also, on another important local food topic: Chez Panisse still could not regain its star this year, which it lost in 2010. When asked about this two years ago, Ellis said, "You know, it's fabulous, it's iconic. We love it... I think it's only a matter of time before they come back into the star category."
I tried to ask him again today if it's somehow harder to gain a star back once you've lost it, or what. See his response below.
SFist: Which Bay Area restaurants were you most impressed with this year?
Michael Ellis: Well, certainly, we've been following chef Corey Lee for a long time, first as chef de cuisine at The French Laundry where he got practical training under Thomas Keller. And at Benu he's developed an individual and personal kind of cuisine that's just extraordinary. This year we found he brought the concentration of his flavors up a notch, earning him a third star. Using Asian and especially Korean flavors he's created something very special this past year, and the concentration and subtlety of what he's doing is incredibly exciting to us.
And Chef Joshua Skenes at Saison is an incredible artist and a purist, and the quality of the seafood he's been sourcing there is just extraordinary. I believe they have heir own boat now to source a lot of that seafood. And it's enabled them to come up with a really refined, distinct menu that represents Northern California and it's been really a breathtaking find for us.
Also this year, we have the second female chef in the Bay Area to earn two stars, Suzette Gresham at Acquerello. We've always liked what she's done, but this year she's been able to raise the refinement and the subtlety of the food and take that to another level. She really broke through this year in terms of modernness and refinement and took it to a new plateau.
And we've added two new sushi restaurants to the one-star level as well, which reflects in part the respect shown them by our Japanese inspectors who visited here.
It's a great year, and it shows how much San Francisco has risen in respect in the food world today. The Asian influences in the cuisines, across many of these restaurants, was something we noted as well.
In the past I learned that you had three full-time inspectors based here in the Bay Area. Is that still true?
Yes, well, we do have a few inspectors who are based here. But what's important to us is that we have different inspectors who are eating all over the world to come through and confirm what local inspectors observe. We had inspectors from Japan and Europe come here on several occasions [over the last year].
The signature of the food in the Bay Area is really unique, and it's important to us to have a diversity of palates tasting and observing dishes at all these restaurants over time.
It also enables us to ensure the star levels are consistent across all of our guides, regardless of the city or country.
When a restaurant loses its star, would you say that it becomes doubly hard for them to earn it back? I'm thinking of places like Chez Panisse and Frances, which were dropped from the star ranking in recent years.
The thing that we hope for most when a restaurant loses a star is that they gain it back. And I would say no, it's not any harder for them to gain it back. Our inspectors have returned multiple times to Chez Panisse in search of the quality that they've seen in the past and we're confident it will get there.
Among this year's Bib Gourmand picks, who would you say are the most promising?
I had dinner last night at Kin Khao which is producing the most amazingly authentic Thai Food I've had outside Thailand. I've spent quite a bit of time in Thailand, and it was just an outstanding find here this year.
Also, Coqueta. Michael Chiarello's Spanish cooking is just top notch. And Anchor Oyster Bar, which has been a beloved neighborhood spot for something like 30 years, they've been doing just excellent work this year.
Where else will you be eating while you're here?
It's hard for me to decide, always, with what limited time I have. There's the party tonight [to celebrate the guide release], and after that I still don't know! I have a few places I want to get to.
The Bay Area is emerging as one of the most evolving and dynamic culinary scenes in the world today. There's a real Northern California cuisine that's been emerging, and it's incredibly exciting to see, and that's part of the reason we've been trying to bring inspectors here from around the world so that more of them can see it and experience it first-hand.