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Michelin Guide Director Explains Why Daniel Lost Its Third Star and More Burning Michelin Questions

Michelin Guide director Michael Ellis tells Eater why the 2015 edition of the restaurant handbook removed Daniel from its elite three star ranks, why Nakazawa was snubbed, and why Blanca, and Aquavit were upgraded to two stars.

When Michelin debuted its New York guide in 2005, it received a mixed reception from some locals who were confused by the stingy rating system (one star is an honor?), while others were miffed by snubs of hometown favorites (no stars for Aquavit or Felidia?). Now, ten guides later, Michelin is getting a warmer reception. Aquavit has not one but two stars, and the guide continues to shake up the culinary debate with its upgrades and downgrades. This year, Daniel was removed from the elite three star ranks, and Nakazawa, one of the city's best reviewed new sushi restaurants, wasn't awarded any stars at all.

Michelin Guide director Michael Ellis spoke with Eater yesterday about the changes to this year's guide, and about the history of Michelin in New York. Here's what he had to say.

Why was Daniel downgraded from three stars to two?

Daniel Boulud is a pillar of the culinary community. He's done amazing things for food and trained countless young chefs...We visit regularly all the starred restaurants, especially the three star restaurants, to make sure they're firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, our inspectors found examples of food at Daniel that wasn't at a three star level. Daniel Boulud is a great chef, a great leader, we can only hope he'll get third star back as soon as possible.

60 Second Tasting Menu: Daniel, Spring 2014

Nakazawa was quite popular among New York's critics, as well as among the dining public. But it didn't earn a star from Michelin. What didn't Michelin see that locals did?

We understand that a lot of people thought is was the next best thing to sliced bread, but we weren't convinced this year.

Honestly it was difficult to get in there, so it took us a long time to finally get a place there. We went several times. All of our inspectors have spent time in Japan...The product was very very good, but some of the preparations didn't have the purity of some of the Japanese food we were looking for...It's a tough call. We wanted to give it some time. We're going to follow them. We just didn't think it was ready for a star yet. We understand that a lot of people thought it was the next best thing to sliced bread, but we weren't convinced this year.

Talk to me about Blanca in Bushwick, which previously held a single star. What was that restaurant doing this year that merited an upgrade to two stars?

Carlo Mirarchi is a brilliant chef. He's really broken out in the creativity area. He can take very simple things and make them spectacular. He upped the ante this year and was able to achieve a level of creativity and gustatory pleasure that was absolutely remarkable. He's doing it in an up-and-coming part of Brooklyn that you wouldn't have expected, five or ten years ago, to have a two-star restaurant in.

For me, Aquavit was the first fancy, fine dining experience I had as a young adult, during the Marcus Samuelsson era in the mid-aughts. And what's cool is that they've been doing Scandinavian food long before it was cool to do so. So it's nice to see Aquavit get two stars, and it's great to hear that Emma Bengtsson, who rose from the position of pastry chef to chef, is now one of two women in America running a two-Michelin-starred restaurant.

Funny you mention that; I first ate at Aquavit in the late 1980s, early 1990s and Aquavit has an iconic place in my memory as well. And Emma, who's Swedish, reveals herself to have talents far above and beyond making pastry. She was able to come up with some beautiful solid European technique, but with great Scandinavian influence. It's not some of the Scandinavian as you know, because they can take it to extremes. It's not just twigs and smoke and lichen. It's solid food. It's pure. It's very linear. It's great products. We think it's an exciting restaurant.

This is your ninth year and your tenth guide. How do you think Michelin is being received differently than in 2005? People were a little confused with the initial guide for a variety of reasons. Do you think New York and Michelin are developing a better relationship?

You have to remember that the New York guide was the first Michelin foray outside of Europe. By definition we had to use European inspectors, mainly French inspectors. Everywhere we go, when we develop a new city, until we're able to locate, identify, hire and train local inspectors, we have to use foreign inspectors. And by definition a French or Italian or Spanish or UK inspector is not necessarily going to have the same vision of food in New York that a local New York epicurean would. That's just the nature of the beast. Obviously once we were up and running and had local New Yorkers, food experts who were familiar with the scene...that was revealed in our selection process.

This is the third edition that I've overseen as head of the Michelin Guide, and I think we have a great understanding of what's going on in New York. We have our own particular view, people could agree with it or not agree with it, but I think we do what we do best, which is produce local guides for local people.

I think that the first guide that came out was the European view of what the New York dining scene was. And that's normal. Hong Kong was the same way. We used Europeans until we hired and trained Hong Kong Chinese inspectors. The Hong Kong guide (we celebrated our fifth anniversary of that guide last year) has evolved significantly now that we have Hong Kong Chinese doing the inspection process.

Last year Queens only had one Michelin star: Danny Brown Wine Bar and Kitchen. This year it has four, with the addition of Zabb Elee, Casa Enrique and M. Wells Steakhouse. What does that borough have to do obtain more stars, just as Brooklyn has been developing in that regard?

Continue to do what Brooklyn does! Chefs go and open shop where their customers are, where they think they can get a customer base. The demographic in New York is changing. I used to live in New York back in the 1980s and Brooklyn, with few exceptions, was not a culinary destination. It's incredible what's happened in Brooklyn. You think, places like Bushwick, Greenpoint, Carroll Gardens — who knows, maybe Bed-Stuy, there will be a star there, not next year — but why not? And Queens is an incredible patchwork of multiculturalism. You're going to find chefs in Queens that, as the sophistication of their audience grows, are going to match that in their cooking.

Last year you decided to take two stars away from Gordon Ramsay, which was a big deal. It didn't get any stars back this year. What wasn't there?

Well, if you remember, we took the two stars away was because the chef left. If we don't know who's going to be cooking, we can't keep two stars there. Gordon Ramsay, it'll take some time, but they'll come back; they'll step up to bat. They have the means to put someone in there and start cooking. It's interesting to see Markus Glocker, who left, he's got a star now at Batard with Drew Nieporent in the old Batard space. So there's a very protean vibe in New York. People are moving; they're changing. There are more surprises out there for next year too. We're already thinking about the 2016 guide

There hasn't been a new three Michelin starred restaurant in New York since 2011 when you elevated Eleven Madison Park and The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare to that club. Last year you said all of the two-starred spots in San Francisco have the potential to be three stars very soon. Do you feel the same about those two stars spots in New York.

I do. It's only a matter of time. All the ingredients are there for there to be more three star restaurants in New York.


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