Getting Personal With Michelin Guide’s Michael Ellis

Tastemakers

July 25, 2018 | BY Don Mendoza

Its International Director gets candid about stepping down, growing wiser with age and opening his own restaurant—possibly

While we might sometimes disagree with the outcome, it’s hard to play down the Michelin Guides’ impact on the global dining scene in recent years. It’s also hard to ignore the guide’s Michael Ellis as part of its global expansion, and in particular into Asia. Surprisingly, though, Ellis will be stepping down as its International Director in September.

He will be crossing the metaphorical river to join Dubai-based Jumeirah Hotel Group as its Chief Culinary Officer. “The seven years have gone by incredibly quickly,” Ellis tells T.Dining over a quick catch-up at Resorts World Sentosa yesterday, where the event to announce the results of the Michelin Guide Singapore 2018 will be held tonight (July 25). 

“It’s also been the most exciting and enriching, and wonderful years of my professional life—it has changed my life and given me opportunities I never thought I would have.” Still, while the 'seven-year itch' is a convenient motivation, we weren't buying it.

“Well, I also turned 60 years old 10 days ago, and there was the opportunity to reinvent myself professionally but also keep doing something that I love… I’ll have the chance to put to use a lot of the contacts and things I’ve learned over the last seven years. To do that at the ripe old age of 60 was an opportunity that was too good to miss,” he explains.

You’ve led the Michelin guides’ coverage of new territories, adding six new guides in the last three years. Would you say this is the highlight of your tenure?
Michael Ellis (ME)
That would certainly be one of the highlights, but there have been so many highlights in this job. One of the big ones has been developing the guides for Singapore, Taipei, Bangkok, for Guangzhou, Seoul, and all the Japanese city guides we’ve done, as well as for Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Washington DC and the Nordic countries. But the thing that has been the most profoundly moving for me is the ability to meet the chefs around the world, and to see the great respect and tremendous emotion the recognition the Michelin Guide brings to these chefs—wherever it is in the world, when I’m on stage… and I put my hand on the chefs’ back, I can feel their hearts pounding (with excitement).

Made a few friends along the way?
ME I can’t say friends—I try to keep a professional distance because they’re friends until we have to take the stars away (laughs). You can be friendly without being friends, if you know what I mean. But it has been a huge honour for me to meet all these chefs.

What did you find most challenging about taking the guide worldwide?
ME To do the best job we possibly can, especially in a place like Singapore, which is for me one of the most complex cities/nations to do a guide. Because there’s so much fantastic food concentrated in such a small area—from the incredibly unique hawker food culture that Singapore has to its fine dining scene. The breadth and depth of good dining, and the incredible value (that it offers)... I can’t think of any other city or place that has that. And with that comes the responsibility to do the best job we can; if anything keeps me up at night, it’s that.

Has that forced you to rethink how the guide is put together?
ME Absolutely. I think you’ll see when we launch the (2018) guide, the focus on the hawker centre culture here is something we realised has roots that are a lot deeper and broader than we anticipated. There’s obviously quite a variety of foods but there's quality as well. 

Was that the plan from day one, and would you say you’ve surpassed all expectations?
ME Yes. I had an internal selling job to do, to explain why we would want to come to Singapore, for example. But once I was able to explain that, my higher-ups in the Michelin corporation signed off. And once they saw the results, they realised the Michelin Guide is a tremendous vehicle for the Michelin brand. And a tremendous tool to create positive experiences around the brand. Because, ultimately, our main business is not publishing guides, it’s making tyres. 

How much has the opportunity allowed you to pursue your passions?
ME 
I started out as a young man wanting to be a chef in Paris 40 years or so ago, and decided after a year working in a one-star Michelin restaurant that maybe I was not cut out to be a chef or a cook. But I did that out of passion, and once you have that in your blood, I think that’s helped me with the chef community. The fact that they know I came in by the little door, as they say, starting at the very bottom, working 12 hour days, peeling potatoes and cutting carrots, and separating eggs, and all the other fun stuff you do as a commis cook.

I used to say to myself before I started working with the Michelin Guide, "How in the world am I ever going to be able to visit all of those Michelin-starred restaurants?" Well, I found out how. And I can also see (in my new job) recreating a Singapore-style hawker centre in a hotel—not as a fine dining restaurant but certainly with the all-day dining restaurant. You can have chicken rice, fish head curry, and laksa; that would be a fantastic concept.

What more have you learned after all these years?
ME
One of the few positive things about ageing is that you come around, after all your experiences, to having a certain point of view. Now I think it is very important to have the whole experience—you have to check all the boxes, whether it’s the service, the comfort or the music that’s playing; it’s all got to come together. And then the icing on the cake is if you’re able to deliver fantastic food and a great experience.

Any thoughts of owning your own restaurant?
ME
That’s one of those hidden fantasies I’ve always had. I love to cook and have dinner parties, so, yes, I do think about that a lot. But it’ll probably stay a fantasy. Some things are best left a fantasy because the reality of it is such that you become a slave to your restaurant. But who knows; maybe 70 will be the new 50 and we’ll be having this conversation again in 10 years.

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