The chef also has the restaurant Kappo Masa, on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, and two restaurants in Las Vegas. Before he opens a new restaurant, he plans the food to fit the neighborhood. “I spent many days standing in the street,” he explains. “I see all the people walking—I see what they eat, where they’re going, what they wear. Then I create the kind of menu that works for this location.” He notes that on New York’s Madison Avenue “the people are fashionable, very thin, they move quickly. So I designed a fish pasta—100 percent fish, no gluten, no wheat—only for Madison people. They love it.”
He was 12 when he began cooking in his home in Japan, helping his father and mother’s catering business deliver sashimi to neighbors, for weddings, wakes, and funerals. He remembers a dish called kai, which is sea bream: “It’s a kind of happiness. Twelve inches of sea bream, grilled. If there are a hundred people at the wake, we’d grill a hundred pieces.” He worked in Tokyo’s renowned Sushi-Ko before moving to Los Angeles, where he eventually opened Ginza Sushi-Ko, one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, which he owned for nearly 20 years. “Then [California restaurateur] Thomas Keller called me. He said, ‘We have a new project in the Time Warner building.’ ”
Attempting to explain why Japan has more Michelin restaurants than any other country, Takayama says, “We are always looking for beauty, simplicity, and detail…. The Japanese have a philosophy in all of their best things—looking to make them better, better, better…. Early morning when I wake up, I’m cooking in my head. I can smell the cooking, even in bed. I can taste it, I can feel the texture. The Michelin people realize how beautifully done, how perfectly done—all the details. But the real critics,” he adds, “are the people…. They judge. Every single day I have to hit the home run.”
For quite a while, Eleven Madison Park had only one star, chef Daniel Humm explains, “and people thought we were underrated, but I never cared. I almost appreciated being the restaurant that was underrated—it’s kind of a beautiful place to be. It’s a lot easier to exceed expectations. Then Michelin moved us from one to three, right away. You can’t deny it—it’s an unbelievable feeling to get three Michelin stars…. It was a goal so big that I was afraid of even the thought.” Humm’s restaurant career began when, as a 14-year-old Swiss boy, he dropped out of school to earn money for a $2,000 racing bicycle. The only place he could find a job was in a restaurant kitchen, chopping vegetables. While there, he learned how to make hollandaise and how to debone a pig. As a young man he graduated to what was then a three-star restaurant, Le Pont de Brent, near Lake Geneva, where he was mentored by chef Gérard Rabaey. The rest is history: Eleven Madison Park is ranked No. 5 in the latest World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the only New York restaurant listed in the Top 10. (Le Bernardin comes in next, at No. 18, then Per Se, at No. 40.)
Will Guidara, who is Humm’s business partner, grew up in the restaurant trade. His father, Frank Guidara, was for 10 years the president of the restaurant division of Restaurant Associates, the fabled company from the Mad Men era that once owned Tavern on the Green, the Four Seasons, Forum of the Twelve Caesars, La Fonda del Sol, and Brasserie. They were the inventors of the theme restaurant in New York. “In my era,” Frank recalls, “Michelin stars were unobtainable outside of Europe, and pretty much outside of France.”
Back then the restaurants in New York were run by the maître d’s, such as Henri Soulé, at Le Pavillon, or Sirio Maccioni, at Le Cirque. The chef was little more than an employee, and the food was often beside the point. “There was no incentive to become a cook—all the incentive existed in becoming a restaurateur,” recalls Will. But that all changed in the decades that followed. Today chefs at two-star restaurants generally make six-figure salaries, and celebrity chefs make tens of millions a year.
When Will started working service in fine dining the chefs terrified him. “I tried not to get yelled at by the chef. I found that in fine dining, the higher up the food chain you got, the more maniacal and tyrannical the chef was becoming.” He subsequently worked for the famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer (who owns Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, and Shake Shack, among others), helping him open restaurants at the Museum of Modern Art. Two and a half years later, Meyer had his vision for Eleven Madison Park, housed on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Life North Building. “Danny came to me,” Will recalls, “and said, ‘What about Eleven Madison Park?’ So, I was like, ‘Dude, I told you I didn’t want anything to do with fine dining!’ ”
But meeting Daniel Humm changed his mind. “I believe he’s one of the best chefs in the world. He became my closest friend,” says Will. It helped that the two men decided early on that “the kitchen and the dining room needed to play nice together. That’s not often the case in restaurants like this…. It’s mostly like an arranged marriage, but for us it’s true love.”
Dinner at Eleven Madison Park might include slow-cooked halibut with clams and sorrel or slow-baked venison with beets and onions. The tasting menu, at $225 per person, features such delicacies as seared foie gras with Brussels sprouts and eel.
‘On June 11, 1991, I walked into the kitchen at Le Bernardin, and I never left,” says chef Eric Ripert, perhaps the most famous of famous chefs due in part to his presence on television on the popular show Top Chef and appearances on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and The Layover, and in cameos on HBO’s New Orleans-themed series, Treme.
Le Bernardin began life in Paris in 1972, founded by Gilbert Le Coze and his sister, Maguy. It was named after a lullaby their father used to sing to them. A second Le Bernardin opened in New York in 1986. When Gilbert died suddenly of a heart attack at age 49 in 1994, Ripert succeeded him as head chef. Now 50, he and his eight sous-chefs devote an hour each day to experimenting. It’s the only time they don’t have to worry about “consistency”—the great buzzword in Michelin. “We start with the mentality of saying, ‘No idea is ridiculous.’ So whatever we do, even if it’s disgusting, we don’t feel bad about it.”
“I think it’s a mistake to be obsessed with ratings,” Ripert says. “It’s like an actor who becomes obsessed with winning the Oscar and he forgets about acting…. When I wake up in the morning and I come to work, I don’t think about stars and ratings—Michelin or The New York Times. I’m busy running the restaurant, mentoring, and living my passion.” Nonetheless, he believes that Michelin still has power. “Even The New York Times very often in its reviews refers to the stars that a restaurant has in Michelin.”
The tasting menu at Le Bernardin runs $170 per person, or $260 with wine pairing, and can include barely cooked scallop, warm peekytoe Maryland lump crab with shaved heirloom cauliflower, wild striped bass, and coconut yuzu sorbet.
‘Brooklyn is booming!” Michael Ellis says enthusiastically, but right now there’s only one three-star Michelin restaurant there: Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, where “it’s not the décor, it’s the food,” says 44-year-old chef César Ramirez, from the small Mexican town of Zimapán, about five hours north of Mexico City, known for its barbacoa: lamb or goat cooked overnight in an earthen pit. Zimapán is where “the matadors used to come from Spain,” recalls Ramirez.
“I remember as a kid I wanted to be a bullfighter, because they used to come all the time to eat at my grandmother’s house. She was a very, very good cook.” The family moved to Chicago, where Ramirez grew up. Instead of going to cooking school, he apprenticed at several Chicago restaurants, working his way up to sous-chef at the Ritz Carlton. In 1998, Ramirez moved to New York, and it was love at first sight. “When I landed, I knew I was meant to be here. I just knew—the energy and everything!”
His first restaurant in New York, Bar Blanc, which opened in 2007 in the West Village, didn’t survive the economic downturn. He went to Brooklyn somewhat reluctantly, feeling that Manhattan was “where it was at,” but then he met and clicked with Moe Issa, now his business partner. They opened their industrial-style restaurant, and in 2014 it became the first in Brooklyn to receive three stars. Given its small size and lack of attention to “the front of the house” (i.e., the dining room), you might say that Chef’s Table helped bring Michelin into the 21st century. Its 18 seats are situated sushi-bar-style around the kitchen, where chef Ramirez and his staff prepare their meals. Gone are the linen tablecloths, the table settings that look as if they are waiting for dinner to be served at Versailles.
Ellis insists that Michelin has adapted to changing times, putting less emphasis on décor and more emphasis on the quality of the food and recognizing the vibrancy of restaurant venues other than the traditional ones, Manhattan and Paris. The inspector we spoke with concurred: “The stars are awarded for what’s on the plate. It doesn’t have to be in an overly opulent setting,” she said.
Specializing in French-Japanese cuisine, Chef’s Table has a prix fixe dinner of $306 per person including service charge, and might feature Hokkaido sea urchin with black truffle and toasted brioche, or Ossetra caviar with crispy potato and dashi sabayon.
Though chef Boulud admits that it hurt him and his team to lose a star, he still trusts Michelin. “I hope they will continue to watch me closely and see the changes I’ve continued to make…. I have seen two presidents at Michelin, I have seen eight food critics at The New York Times, and I’m still standing, taking pleasure every day at what I do…. I accept the loss, but I will not accept for my team to think we are now disqualified as the best restaurant in New York, and in America. Vas-y!”