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Saturday, September 17, 2005

Ratings Attained by Bay Area Chefs: Five-Year Trend Lines

In my last post, I examined the ratings that The San Francisco Chronicle and its lead food critic, Michael Bauer, have awarded to upper-end restaurants over the course of the past five years.   I also presented trend lines for the ratings given to each establishment, and offered some thoughts about how these restaurants may fare going forward.   I would now like to focus on the individuals who, perhaps more than anybody, drive the ratings that Bauer hands out: the chefs who head up the Bay Area's best kitchens.

As anybody who has tried to keep abreast of such matters can attest, the interaction between chefs and restaurants here in the Bay Area often resembles a game of musical chairs – with positions being passed from one person to the next in a dizzying sequence, and the occasional individual leaving the Bay Area altogether.   This relative lack of stability means that the quality of the corresponding restaurants is often in a state of flux;   after all, the abilities of the executive chef are what define the upper limit on how successful a given establishment's food can really be.

Now, I have previously pointed out that even when a restaurant has undergone a change at the top of the kitchen, the ratings history for the establishment can be suggestive of future performance.   This is true because prior assessments reveal useful information about the owners' commitment to recruiting top talent, while also shedding some light on the preconceptions that Bauer may have in mind as he approaches the establishment for a new review.   But there is another metric that is equally useful, and that is how the new chef has performed at his/her prior positions.   It is relatively rare that a chef will attain one rating while at a first restaurant, and then move to a second restaurant and suddenly start performing at a wildly different level.   Furthermore, the evaluation that Bauer gives a particular chef today will undoubtedly carry some weight in his mind when he sits down a year from now to review a different restaurant to which the chef has moved.

So, let's take a look now at how some of the top-tier chefs in the Bay Area have performed over time, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.   I will start again with Bauer's conclusions from November 2000, when he conducted one of his periodic reviews of the Bay Area's fine dining scene.   That time around, the chefs that earned 4 stars for their restaurants were as follows:

The Chronicle's Four-Star Chefs
as of November 2000
(Restaurant/Executive Chef)
The French LaundryThomas Keller
Fleur de LysHubert Keller
La FolieRoland Passot
Chez PanisseAlice Waters
Charles Nob HillRon Siegel
Fifth FloorGeorge Morrone
AquaMichael Mina

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
The first four chefs on this list have remained at their restaurants right up through the present, and Bauer just recently reaffirmed each of their 4-star ratings.   The remaining three chefs, however, all departed from their restaurants to pursue other opportunities.   Ron Siegel left Charles Nob Hill for Masa's in late 2000, and he then moved to The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in July 2004.   Although Siegel never managed to secure more than 3.5 stars from Bauer during his tenure at Masa's, he was just recently awarded 4 stars for his efforts at The Dining Room.   George Morrone resigned from Fifth Floor in 2001 to join Michael Mina and the Aqua Development Corporation in launching the ill-fated Redwood Park, which Bauer would ultimately conclude merited 3.5 stars.   Morrone was terminated from his position as executive chef in late 2002, and he then left the Bay Area to help launch a restaurant in Australia.   He returned to San Francisco in July 2004 with Tartare, which garnered only 2 stars from Bauer before finally closing just a few weeks ago.   Morrone's future is now unclear, as his original plans to transform Tartare into a different concept are suddenly up in the air.   Michael Mina left Aqua and the Aqua Development Corporation in late 2002, with plans to launch his own restaurant empire.   He opened Arcadia in San Jose in April 2003, and he reentered the San Francisco market in July 2004 with Michael Mina restaurant.   The former has never earned more than 3 stars, while the latter was awarded 3.5 stars.

The following table sets forth the ratings that various chefs were able to attain for restaurants in, or near, the top tier over the course of the past five years.   Next to each chef's name are three columns:   the left column contains the overall rating for the restaurant at which the individual was executive chef in November 2000, the column on the far right contains the overall rating for the chef's current restaurant, and the middle column contains any intervening ratings awarded by Bauer.   If a chef has been at the same restaurant throughout the entire period, the restaurant name appears below his/her name;   if the chef has moved, the restaurant names appear next to the individual ratings.

Selected Chefs and Restaurant Ratings Attained
from The San Francisco Chronicle
November 2000 - September 2005
ChefNov. 2000
Sep. 2005
Thomas Keller
(The French Laundry)
Hubert Keller
(Fleur de Lys)
Roland Passot
(La Folie)
Alice Waters
(Chez Panisse)
Daniel Humm--3.5 (Campton Place)4.0 (Campton Place)
Ron Siegel4.0 (Charles Nob Hill)3.5 (Masa's)
3.5 (The Dining Room)
4.0 (The Dining Room)
David Kinch3.0 (Sent Sovi)3.0 (Manresa)4.0 (Manresa)
Laurent Manrique2.5 (Campton Place)3.0 (Campton Place)
3.5 (Aqua)
3.5 (Aqua)
Suzette Gresham
Adrian Hoffman--3.5 (One Market)3.5 (One Market)
Gary Danko
(Gary Danko)
Traci des Jardins
Mark Franz
Hiro Sone
Michael Mina4.03.0 (Arcadia)
3.5 (Michael Mina)
3.0 (Arcadia)
3.5 (Michael Mina)
Melissa Perello--3.5 (Charles Nob Hill)3.0 (Fifth Floor)
George Morrone4.0 (Fifth Floor)3.5 (Redwood Park)2.0 (Tartare)

A review of the data in the above table reveals several interesting developments and trends.   At the top are the four chefs who have continuously maintained 4-star ratings for their restaurants from November 2000 through today – i.e., Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller, Roland Passot, and Alice Waters.   As I have noted before, Hubert Keller and Roland Passot significantly revised their menus during the relevant timeframe, so their ability to sustain 4-star status is especially notable.   Ron Siegel started out the period with 4 stars, but he stumbled down to 3.5 stars at Masa's before finally rejoining the 4-star ranks this year as Executive Chef of The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   Daniel Humm made a splashy 3.5-star entrance when he arrived at Campton Place in 2003, and he climbed to the top a mere two years later – at the incredibly young age of 28.   And David Kinch spent the entire five years generating considerable buzz – but only 3 stars – at Sent Sovi and then Manresa, before finally getting a well-deserved promotion to 4 stars this year.

Laurent Manrique took Campton Place from 2.5 stars to 3.0 stars, before passing the baton to Daniel Humm to take the restaurant into the top-tier.   Manrique continued to improve as well, earning 3.5 stars for his work at Aqua.   Suzette Gresham, who has been at the helm of Acquerello's kitchen for over 15 years, raised the restaurant from 2.5 stars in 2000 to 3.5 stars today.   And Adrian Hoffman has been stuck at 3.5 stars since early 2001, while Gary Danko, Traci des Jardins, Mark Franz, and Hiro Sone have been mired at the same level for the entire five-year period and then some.

Michael Mina had 4 stars in November 2000, but his first Bay Area venture after he left Aqua – i.e., Arcadia in San Jose – emerged from Bauer's review with an undoubtedly disappointing 3 stars.   And after a very high-profile 2004 debut that elicited gushing praise from Bauer, Michael Mina restaurant found itself unable to move beyond 3.5-star status.   Melissa Perello earned an impressive 3.5 stars in her first ever stint as an executive chef, but she slipped down to 3 stars when she moved from Charles Nob Hill to Fifth Floor.   Finally, George Morrone began the period with 4 stars, but his fortunes have since dropped off precipitously.   In particular, he went from 3.5 stars at Redwood Park to 2 stars at Tartare, and both restaurants closed roughly within one year of opening.

The following table separates the chefs listed above into those with upward momentum, those that are holding relatively steady, and those with downward momentum:

Trend Lines in Restaurant Ratings
Attained by Chefs
Upward MomentumDaniel Humm
David Kinch
Laurent Manrique
Suzette Gresham
Holding SteadyThomas Keler
Hubert Keller
Roland Passot
Alice Waters
Ron Siegel
Gary Danko
Traci des Jardins
Mark Franz
Hiro Sone
Adrian Hoffman
Downward MomentumGeorge Morrone
Michael Mina
Melissa Perello

Bauer obviously has no question about Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller, Roland Passot and Alice Waters, and he has now given Ron Siegel the top score two different times at two different restaurants.   Accordingly, the 4-star ratings of these five chefs appear to be relatively safe – at least as long as they remain at their current restaurants and continue along their present paths.   The same can probably be said with regard to Daniel Humm and David Kinch, albeit for different reasons.   Kinch earned his 4 stars only after toiling away at 3 stars for over a decade, suggesting that Bauer does not view him as a mere flash in the pan whose rating should be easily revoked.   And few chefs seem to have inspired more effusive praise from Bauer than Humm, indicating that Bauer's favorable impressions of him run especially deep and are unlikely to reverse course anytime soon.

Both Laurent Manrique and Suzette Gresham climbed to 3.5 stars during the relevant time period, but the key question now is whether either of them will be able to take the final step up to 4 stars.   My suspicion is that both will remain where they are for some time to come, but only Manrique appears to have the potential to actually be elevated by Bauer.   Of the 3.5-star stalwarts – Gary Danko, Traci des Jardins, Mark Franz, Hiro Sone, and Adrian Hoffman – I would guess that all but Hoffman and Sone are virtually guaranteed to stay put.   Hoffman has some chance of getting bumped up down the road because he is young enough and has not been entrenched at his restaurant as long as the others;   Sone, meanwhile, might generate some excitement when he opens his new establishment in San Francisco later this year, giving him a fresh shot at the top tier.   Finally, Melissa Perello's slip from 3.5 stars to 3 stars is obviously not a good development, but she is still young enough and talented enough to turn things around provided that the owners of Fifth Floor stand behind her.

And that leaves the two chefs who may be more disappointed than anybody else about how they have fared under Bauer over the past five years:   Michael Mina and George Morrone.   Morrone first rocketed to fame when he and his chef de cuisine, Michael Mina, opened Aqua in 1992 and put the restaurant on the map by earning it 4 stars.   Morrone left Aqua in 1994 and eventually landed at Fifth Floor, where he again attained 4 stars – becoming the first chef in the Bay Area to get The Chronicle's top rating at two different restaurants.   Meanwhile, Mina took over the kitchen at Aqua, and he, too, ended up with 4 stars.   So, with all of these top-tier ratings between the two of them, Mina and Morrone cannot be too happy about having opened up a string of restaurants that have drawn only 3.5, 3 and even 2-star ratings.   Mina, at least, is still in the hunt; his eponymous restaurant presently sits at 3.5 stars and theoretically could, with some modifications, be granted 4 stars by Bauer at some point in the future.   Morrone, on the other hand, has suffered a greater fall from grace in Bauer's book, and he obviously needs to regroup and focus on finding a platform that will enable him to showcase his considerable talents.

It's anybody's guess whether the trend lines reflected here for chef's ratings - coupled with those identified in my last post for restaurant ratings - will, in fact, accurately forecast the assessments that Michael Bauer will make down the road. Yet, because Bauer's tastes and sensibilities do not seem to shift dramatically over time, these historical results are probably the best predictors we have as to what the future holds.


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