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As director of the famed Michelin Guide, Jean-Luc Naret strikes fear into the hearts of restaurateurs across the world. But this week in Tokyo, the Frenchman was the one doing the fretting.
"When I go back to France, they will say, 'How dare you give more three stars to Tokyo than Paris!'" Naret said during a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan on Thursday. "When I go through customs, I will be rejected. 'Go back to your own country. You are not French anymore!'"
The World Cup and Olympics won't happen until next year, but the competition for international bragging rights--food division--has been won by Tokyo. Eleven restaurants here bagged the coveted three-star ranking, Michelin's highest honor, in the just-released 2010 guide, edging out Paris' 10 for most of any city. (New York has four top-ranked restaurants.) In all, Tokyo garnered 261 stars, also tops in the world.
Time and again, Naret was asked about the budding food rivalry between Tokyo and Paris.
The achievement, coming in the third year that Michelin has ranked establishments here, has been heralded as proof that Tokyo is now the culinary capital of the world. And that has angered the food-loving French, where the Michelin Guide was born and where culinary sophistication is taken as a birthright. Some French sympathizers have pointed out that Tokyo has 160,000 restaurants--four times as many as Paris.
"Tokyo has more restaurants than anyone in the world, than any other country," Naret acknowledged while fielding questions from the foreign reporters. "Yes, there are many good restaurants here, but statistically, they should have the most three-stars here. I would not be surprised, and don't quote me on this, that someday Tokyo will have more three-stars than [all of] France. They could have 400 to 500 three-stars here."
Asked why Tokyo scored so well, Naret credited the access to high-quality ingredients, such as fresh seafood at the Tsukiji fish market, attention to detail in a country where a seven-year apprenticeship for a sushi chef is common, and a discerning clientele.
"Everyone goes out for dinner here at lunchtime," he told a male reporter. "If we go to any of these three-star restaurants at lunch, we would be the only two men in the room. The room would be full of lovely shopping ladies who have their shopping bags. And then you go to dinner and the restaurants are still full."
The Michelin Guide was an instant success upon its Japan debut in 2007, selling out its initial print run of 150,000 copies in 24 hours. A second printing of 150,000 sold out in five more weeks. This year, the Guide expanded to Kyoto and Osaka, causing some consternation among traditional chefs in Kyoto who were suspicious of the endeavor and demanded they not be included in the reviews.
But it was the international competition that dominated the press briefing. Time and again, Naret was asked about the budding food rivalry between Tokyo and Paris. It is not the first time such questions have come up, he explained. Two years ago, Germany had more three-star restaurants than Italy.
"Can you imagine that? The Italians getting beat by the Germans!" he said with a laugh.
Later, he said he told French interviewers to forget everything they know about Japanese restaurants because most of them in France are owned by the Chinese.
"Not that I'm saying anything bad about the Chinese," Naret added quickly. "It's just that when they open a Japanese restaurant in France, they try to have everything all in one--sushi, yakitori. That is different than here."
Perhaps sensing he needed to, um, butter up his audience, Naret slathered on the charm when asked how he would review the press club lunch of slow cooked beef short ribs with boulangere potato, carrots, pearl onions, bacon, and red wine sauce.
"I will be politically correct," he said. "The stars are not on the plate, but around the table today."