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After Tokyo, the Michelin Guide heads to Kansai

by Melinda Joe

Speaking last week about Michelin’s decision to release its Kyoto/Osaka dining guide this October, Jean-Luc Naret punctuates his sentences with the practiced smile of a man who has worked in the hospitality industry for a long time. If sales of the Tokyo Michelin Guide are anything to go by, there’s a lot to smile about. The first saw sales of 300,000 copies in less than five weeks, and Naret, the guide’s director, feels optimistic about the reception of Michelin’s second Japanese edition.

“Kyoto is a place where gastronomy is really quite important, with a history of traditions and products,” Naret says. “And Osaka is Japan’s second-biggest city, with good restaurants in every category.” In contrast to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Naret says that the restaurants in Kyoto are “more about the experience itself, as well as the food, the history and the legacy. It’s like a feast.”

Osaka, too, has a different vibe. “Osaka is more laid-back. The sense is about good value for money,” he explains.

A team of seven Japanese inspectors has been in the area since autumn 2007, anonymously testing and retesting the 1,000 restaurants that are currently under consideration. In order to maintain a level of consistency, inspectors from Europe and the United States have also been flying in to evaluate the restaurants.

Each inspector goes to roughly 600 restaurants per year. It’s a demanding schedule, and Naret says that many applicants drop out once they find out how much work is involved. Naret himself eats out well over 400 times a year.

“But if I don’t feel like going, I don’t go,” he admits. “I tell all of my inspectors the same thing: ‘If you’re not in the mood to go to the restaurants, don’t force yourself, because it won’t be fair to the chef.’ “

When asked about rumors that some restaurants declined to be included in the Tokyo guide, the director quickly dismisses the claims. “I think there was some misunderstanding,” says Naret. “We didn’t go to get information or money; only pictures. Only three restaurants declined to give pictures.

“At any rate, it’s not their decision to be in the guide; it’s our decision.”

Few can ignore Michelin’s impact on food sales. Naret says stars result in a 30- to 50-percent increase in traffic. The French tire company released it’s first guide in 1900, and it’s coverage now spans 23 countries. Naret says that there will be more Japanese guides, but Tokyo remains his favorite dining town. “Where else in the world will a chef show you out to say goodbye, and wait until you turn the block?” he asks. “From a service perspective, I find it fascinating. When somebody asks me about Japanese food, I say, ‘You know what? Get an airplane ticket and go to Tokyo, because the city’s really worth the trip — three stars!’ ”

Where does he like to eat when he’s here? “Oh, I can’t tell you,” he laughs, and, as he turns to leave, flashes one last smile and wags his finger. “Don’t try to follow me.”