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Michelin Guide's Director Talks the Three-Star Onslaught and Future Contenders

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"The Bay Area's got nowhere to go but up."

Now that the 2015 Bay Area Michelin star ratings have been revealed in their full glory, we hopped on the phone with Michael Ellis, the international director for the Michelin Guide, to get the full story on the anonymous inspectors' mindsets, and how the star rankings were chosen. Below, his thoughts on what makes Benu and Saison special, why Rich Table and Chez Panisse continue to slip below star level, and the most exciting new restaurants on his radar.

Let's start with the two new three-star restaurants; that's obviously huge news. Saison and Benu have been in their current homes for a while now; what was it this year that pushed them over the edge for you?

I'll start with Benu. We've been following Corey Lee for a long time, since he was chef de cuisine at the French Laundry. He's got great classic French technique, and he's using great ingredients and really developing his Asian touches, especially the Korean influences that are part of his heritage. This year, he's really taken it to the next level in terms of the intensity of flavors. We were really happy to see him achieve the level of cooking he did this year.

Joshua Skenes at Saison has also been making great progress in terms of climbing the star ladder. He's using absolutely exceptional seafood, from the restaurant's own private boat. He's also got great technique, and he's got a great signature: Japanese influences, with Northern California philosophy. We were thrilled to see what he was doing this year.

Where, specifically, did they improve? What made the difference in terms of making you say, "Wow, they're in a separate class right now?"

With Corey Lee, it was really the intensity of flavors he's been able to achieve. I've had the pleasure of eating there a couple of times, and this year, we really noticed that the concentration of flavors and the subtlety were really top-notch. That's very difficult to do: to be able to develop the intensity and mixtures of ingredients. He really broke out into another level, and that was something we'd been hoping to see for a while. He finally got there.

In terms of Joshua's cooking, he's able to source product that is just absolutely astounding. He's got a signature that is unique, as all three-star chefs do. When we look for three stars, we're looking for the ingredients, the mastery of cooking technique, the harmony and equilibrium of flavors, and the chef's personality. I think that Joshua has been able to come up with that, and what he does is unique and really thrilling to see. They're both great artists.

In terms of what differentiates the two-star from the three-star class, are you exclusively looking at the quality of the cuisine, or are you also taking into account things like the luxuriousness of the setting? In recent years, we've seen a lot of SF restaurants renovating with the idea of upping their star status in mind, and I'm curious if Saison's move to its newer, nicer space, or Coi and Quince's recent renovations, have any effect on their ratings.

The stars are purely what's on the plate. We use the knife and fork symbols from 1-5, which indicates the level of ambience, the setting, the place settings. But for us, stars are really centered around the plate. We're really looking for emotion. When you're eating in a three-star restaurant, it shouldn't be just pristine ingredients, perfectly cooked, in elegant harmony: it should be an emotional experience, an experience you remember. When you leave, you should say, "Wow, I haven't eaten like this in years." And I think Corey and Josh were both able to achieve that this year. It's very exciting for us.

Acquerello celebrated their 25th anniversary this year, and they've held one-star status in the Guide since it began. What was the defining moment that pushed Suzette Gresham's food from the one- to two-star level for you?

Well, first of all, it's a great pleasure for us to welcome the second female two-star chef in the San Francisco area, and the third in the nation. That's a great achievement. I think that Suzette was able to offer a personal take on Italian food that's still extremely elegant, extremely refined. The subtlety of the flavors and the harmony of what she's doing made a huge impression on us. We went back there several times, and it's just a superb place.

The Bay Area hasn't had any starred sushi restaurants before, correct?

Yes, that's correct.

What was it about Kusakabe and Maruya that set the bar for you? What were they offering that no sushi place in the Bay Area previously had?

Chef Kusakabe's take on sushi is not a traditional Japanese take, but he has a great artistic approach, and we felt the quality of the product and how it was prepared were head-and-shoulders above what we've seen before. That was a great star for us. Maruya offers Edomae sushi, which we felt was more of a Japanese-style experience. The quality's great, their omakase menu at the counter is superb, and we just felt that it was a standout.

April Bloomfield holds a star for both The Spotted Pig and The Breslin in New York, but Tosca Cafe didn't make the cut, as you presaged on Twitter.

I have great respect for April; she is a fantastic chef. They're still settling in there, and I think it's only a matter of time until they become more stable. We went a couple of times, and had some up-and-down experiences, but that's just growing pains. I think it's only a matter of time before they start firing on all cylinders, and achieve a steady level of quality.

Chez Panisse came back after its fire, but wasn't able to regain the star it lost in 2010. What is that restaurant not doing now that it used to?

That was a difficult call. We just didn't find the overall quality and the inspiration we found there in the past. It's still a great restaurant, but we didn't find it quite up to the level it had been in the past.

Year after year, Baumé makes the two-star list, but it doesn't seem to get anywhere near the media attention of others in that category. What might you say to entice someone who might not be familiar with it to dine there?

Every two-star restaurant has their own signature, and Bruno Chemel does very subtle food, with great ingredients, that's hard to define. It's very personal cooking. Northern California has a very particular type of cuisine, and Baumé falls right in with that. It's light, the ingredients are superb, he uses a lot of seafood. It's almost ethereal, what he does. It's very clean and linear. The technique is great, the products are great, it's a great place.

Was there a level of debate as to whether to include Manresa in the guide or not, given that it's still closed from its fire and won't open until December at the earliest?

Sure, we had an internal debate. We know David Kinch and his cooking very well—it's one of my favorite restaurants. It was a tragic fire, because we thought the restaurant was as good as it had ever been when the fire struck. We've been following the reconstruction very closely, and we have no doubt that he'll be open in the new year. We still have great expectations; David's a great chef. He's got the whole package, and we'll be following that reopening with great interest.

Are there any restaurants that are "ones to watch," in terms of being movers and shakers in the coming year?

All the two-star restaurants are three-star candidates, for the chefs who want to take it to the next level. We saw that this year with Benu and Saison, and we're watching Acquerello, Atelier Crenn, Baumé, Coi, Manresa, and Quince very closely.

There's a great authentic Thai restaurant now, Kin Khao. I had dinner there last night. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Thailand in my previous job with Michelin, and it was the first time I've really had authentic Thai food outside of Thailand. When we walked into the restaurant, I could smell a certain smell of Thai cooking that you just don't find outside of Thailand. That was a great meal, and that's a restaurant we're keeping our eye on.

Coqueta...Michael Chiarello's Spanish cuisine is great. Rich Table is another great restaurant we're looking at. The Bay Area is an exciting area, very dynamic, a lot going on.

Rich Table has been a bridesmaid for a while now. What isn't it doing that it needs to do, to get to that one-star status?

We went there several times and had some great dishes, but not all of them were at the one-star level. When we go, all the dishes need to be at that level. It's a great restaurant, a ton of the dishes were super, but we didn't find that consistent level. We'll keep going back, though!

What do you see as the overall themes of this year's guide? Looking at Benu and Saison, and the two new sushi restaurants, this guide seems to be a celebration of Asian food on the West Coast.

You summed it up perfectly. It's a reflection of what makes the Bay Area so unique. You have this great alchemy of chefs that are trained in French technique, have access to incredible products, and are able to combine Asian and American influences to come up with some of the most exciting food that I'm seeing in the world today. The Bay Area's got nowhere to go but up, and this guide just affirms that.

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