Fare-Minded Arbiter

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

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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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