Fare-Minded Arbiter | Travel | Smithsonian

Fare-Minded Arbiter

Quelle surprise! Englishman Derek Brown presides over France's prestigious Michelin guide to haute cuisine

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To meet with Derek Brown, you must first pass a checkpoint at the main gate of a chic 1930s-style office building on the avenue de Breteuil in Paris. From there, you walk through a tropical garden into the reception area, where your passport or carte d’identité is confiscated. Then you clip on your visitor’s tag and wait. Derek Brown may not be the Président de la République, but the prestige he enjoys is not far removed, for he is the editor of Le Guide Rouge Michelin, the illustrious hotel and restaurant directory that is France’s—make that the world’s—bible of gastronomic excellence.

Brown, 58, is an Englishman. A little more than two years ago, when Michelin (a company that also makes tires) announced his appointment, Gallic eyebrows shot up. The very idea of a Britannique as the arbiter of French cooking was shocking. But the following March, when the guide made its annual appearance, there was no mention of boiled beef at the Tour d’Argent nor toad in the hole at the Ritz. Le Michelin was still le Michelin, which is to say as French as ever.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this fat, symbol-filled book with its bright red cover. The secrecy of its procedures, the integrity of its inspectors and the dour reserve of its editors make it one of the rare institutions to which the French willingly accord their full confidence. For more than 100 years now, the so-called Red Guide has been a reassuring constant in an ever-changing world. A cartoon in a Paris newspaper in the mid-1960s nicely summed up Michelin’s unassailable reputation. It depicted France’s sensationally high-handed president, Charles de Gaulle, addressing Bibendum, the famous Michelin man made of tires. "Alors, Bibendum," de Gaulle is saying, "Who is the guide, you or me?"

Brown learned the Michelin theology many years ago, and he’s not about to rock the boat now. He began as a restaurant inspector in 1971 prior to the launching of the guide’s British edition three years later. Son of a naval architect and an at-home mother, he went to hotel school in England and then spent four years as a cook and hotel manager before answering an ad and plunging into the venerable rites of the Michelin factotum: restaurant meals twice a day, hotel inspections between them and reports written in the evening.

He usually worked alone, driving a nondescript car, dressing in an average way, blending into the background, eating, paying his bill and continuing quietly on to his next stop. But like Superman disguised behind Clark Kent’s nerdy eyeglasses, Inspector Brown had a trick up his sleeve: the power to confer a Michelin guide star or two or perhaps even three, the ultimate accolade, upon the restaurants that pleased his palate. Those stars matter immensely. No establishment whose reputation has been made by the guide wants to see its ratings tumble. Everyone in the trade knows about the French restaurateur who committed suicide upon learning that he had lost his star. But Brown does not remember it that way.

"It’s a fine old story," he says, "but the poor man had been having all sorts of other problems, and it simply wasn’t happening on the plate anymore. Life got to be too much for him. It wasn’t the guide."

Brown sees visiting journalists and other callers in one of the conference rooms in which supplicant chefs are sequestered when they make their annual pilgrimages to avenue de Breteuil to ask how they are doing and, symbolically, kiss the pope’s ring. No outsider is permitted in the secret sectors beyond the ground floor and the basement, much less in Brown’s office itself. "I was trembling with terror the first time I was led into one of those windowless little rooms," one two-star chef freely admits. Thousands like him know the experience. Brown has a corps of poker-faced assistants whose basilisk gazes can turn the strongest legs to jelly.

You probably wouldn’t notice Derek Brown in a crowd, and that’s the way he wants it. He is of average height and build and, for a man who has spent his professional life being paid to eat in restaurants, surprisingly trim. His appearance is serious and respectable: conservative gray suit, blue shirt, red-checkered tie, pochette folded just so in his breast pocket, understated gold watch. He is soft-spoken. His beautifully manicured hands may indicate a fastidious nature. With his horn-rimmed glasses, clear blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, slightly balding at the back, he could fit in anywhere.

Michelin men and women take great pride in not sticking out. "A while ago I ate in a three-star restaurant in Paris," Brown recalls, "and a month or so later the owner asked to come and see me. When I told him I had been there, he was surprised. It must have been when I was away, he said. No, I told him—when you came by the tables to talk with the guests, you spoke with us, and you didn’t recognize me."

That triumph of anonymity was all the more satisfying when considered against the legendary alertness that reigns in the trade. No one is as gimlet-eyed as a restaurateur on the lookout for a Michelin representative. The game of spot-the-inspector has been going on ever since the first guide appeared in 1900, and French food folklore is replete with stories of hits and misses. But the hits aren’t necessarily to the advantage of the host.

Once when Brown and a colleague were in a restaurant, the manager was having lunch a few tables away. "He called the headwaiter over, and we overheard him say I think those two blokes are from the Michelin guide. From then on the whole thing went mad. One of us was having the dish of the day from a carving trolley, and now back came the trolley. The carving chef said have some more, I’ve got a fresh one here, and then the wine waiter poured us some wine and spilled two little drops on the tablecloth. Well, instead of covering it up with a napkin—perfectly normal—they took everything off and changed the whole tablecloth as we were eating. Complete nonsense. We just discounted that visit."

Michelin’s award of a star, or even simple inclusion in the guide, can bring a restaurant almost instant prosperity, and Brown is pleased to see more and more stars showing up these days. France, the land of renowned chefs Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse and Bernard Loiseau, is still the champion of la grande cuisine, with 23 three-star establishments, but 22 other restaurants of the same stature are scattered throughout the ten Red Guides Michelin publishes on other European countries. Fine cooking has become a worldwide passion.

Brown is cagey about rumors that Michelin plans to bring out an American guide. "My experience there hasn’t been enormous," he says. "It’s mainly New York City. There are some very fine restaurants, but in America people tend to go much more in vogues than in Europe. You can make a small fortune very quickly, but just as quickly you can stop having your customers the day after."

As for fast food, the unknown manager of an unnamed burger-and-fries emporium in Manhattan might be surprised to learn that he or she has had the honor of an anonymous visit by Michelin’s inspector in chief. "Yes, I ate a burger," Brown admits. "And drank a Coke. I went specifically to a place in New York to see what it was all about. It wasn’t highly sophisticated, gastronomically, but there was nothing wrong with it."

Is there anything this urbane omnivore doesn’t like? "There are some things I enjoy less [than others]," he allows. "One is beetroot [beets]. And I have to admit I’m not great on cooked carrots. Apart from that, there’s not much I won’t eat." His protestations notwithstanding, however, there’s reason to suspect Brown may be even more particular at home than he is on the job. His wife, Jennie, says he’s "fussy."

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