Shrouded in mystery, Michelin Guide inspector dishes on selection process

Update: After this piece aired, the Michelin Guide announced its picks for the Michelin Guide Washington 2017. See highlights from the list at the bottom of this article. 

If you want a nice meal out on the town, you might look at reviews on Yelp. But if you want to experience the meal-of-a-lifetime, you pick up a copy of the famous Michelin Guide. On Thursday, the guide will announce its picks for its first Washington, D.C., edition.

D.C. is not typically known as a destination for fine dining, but that’s about to change, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford.

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Michelin inspectors visited hundreds of restaurants across the nation’s capital, but just 107 will be listed in the city’s Michelin Guide. Only a select handful will be awarded one of the most coveted food honors in the world, a Michelin star.

When mercurial celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay lost a coveted Michelin star, he told a Norwegian television station for once he didn’t scream.

“I started crying when I lost my stars,” Ramsay said. “You know, it’s like losing a girlfriend.”
 
For nearly a century, the red book has decreed the top restaurants in the world. This week, after a years-long process, shrouded in mystery, Michelin comes to Washington with a new guide -- and for a select few chefs, new stars.
 
We sat down with Michelin’s top U.S. inspector at the Tasting Table test kitchen in New York with the promise not to blow her cover. 

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Jan Crawford sat down with Michelin’s top U.S. inspector with the promise not to blow her cover

CBS News

“It’s an award they take seriously because they don’t know we’ve been there. They can’t influence our findings,” the inspector said. 
 
“It strikes fear and awe in chefs’ hearts,” Crawford said.
 
“This is the holy grail for them. This is what they’ve been working towards their whole career,” the inspector said.
 
Like all Michelin inspectors, she is strictly anonymous -- even close friends don’t know her real job.
 
“We’re not trying to play tricks or hide from the chefs. What we are trying to do is have an honest experience the way a consumer does when they go to a restaurant,” she said. 
 
“So you’re not getting special treatment, like, ‘Oh, my gosh. There’s the inspector,’” Crawford said. 
 
“We sit on hold, making reservations for a long time. We have to eat at 5:30 or 10:30. We get terrible tables,” the inspector said.
 
“So it’s like you’re in the C.I.A.,” Crawford said. 
 
“C.I.A., but much better food. Much better food,” the inspector said.

In Washington, Michelin found some great food-like the dishes coming from cutting-edge Filipino chef Tom Cunanan. We visited Cunanan’s Bad Saint with D.C. food critic Jessica Sidman to find out why it was included in Michelin’s list of 19 Washington “’Bib Gourmands.”
  
Bib Gourmands are the kind of moderately-priced restaurant the inspectors might frequent on their night off.

“Of course they meet the Michelin Guide criteria of quality, and the cooking is excellent. … A place like Bad Saint is a great Bib Gourmand,” the inspector said.

And one day they may get one, two or even three elusive Michelin stars.
 
“What is a three-star Michelin restaurant?” Crawford asked.

“The best way to sum up a three-star restaurant is, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime. It’s something you’re going to remember forever,” the inspector said.
 
But any star is an honor. Of the restaurants that make it into the guide, just 10 percent actually get a star rating. In the U.S., only 13 restaurants hold three Michelin stars -- places so exceptional they’re worth a special journey
 
That was the purpose of the guide when it was founded in the early 1900s. The French-based Michelin, after all, is a tire company. In the early days of the automobile, its founders wanted to encourage travel, and what better way than a guide to fine dining.
 
It now has 27 guides worldwide, three in the U.S. Washington, long seen as a town of steakhouses and expense accounts, this week will become America’s fourth.
 
“In the last few years, it’s incredible what’s gone on with the restaurants in Washington, D.C.,” the inspector said. “There are a lot of young chefs who are expressing a very unique and distinctive personality … and similarly, the chefs in restaurants that have been around for a long time are evolving.”

One of those young chefs is Aaron Silverman, whose restaurant Rose’s Luxury is widely considered one of the city’s best. Customers stand in line for hours to get a table.
 
“At the end of the day, our job is just to make people happy,” Silverman said. “Whether you’re a server or bartender who is waiting on a guest, or whether you’re a sous-chef who is leading your cooks, your job is to make them happy.”
 
But will Rose’s Luxury get a star? Or his new venture, the high-end Pineapple and Pearls, which the Washington Post called “the premier example of fine dining in the country”?

“It’s incredible and I hope that we get something, or multiple things from them,” Silverman said. “But the biggest benefit I’m going to get out of that, out of that award is hopefully we’re busier and we can do more for our staff.”

Here’s who received the highly-coveted Michelin stars:

Two stars:

  • Minibar 
  • Pineapple & Pearls

  • The Inn at Little Washington

One star: 

  • Blue Duck Tavern

  • Fiola

  • Kinship

  • Masseria 
  • Plume
  • Rose’s Luxury
  • Sushi Taro
  • Tail Up Goat
  • The Dabney