Foodie Confidential

Dried ants and snake soup: Michelin Guide's Michael Ellis has eaten it all

What Michelin Guide international director Michael Ellis has eaten on his travels

It was a three-course meal in France that changed the life of Mr Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide.

It happened when he was 16 years old, while on a high-school excursion.

Calling it an "epiphany", the 58-year-old recalls eating Moules Provencale (mussels with tomatoes, herbs and garlic), veal scallops with creamy mushroom sauce, and creme caramel. That sparked his love for all things French and Mr Ellis made it a mission to learn the language, go to cooking school and be a chef as well.

He cannot reveal where this meal took place because any mention of restaurants or chefs in this interview will be deemed as bias, says Mr Ellis, who was born in New York, but grew up in Colorado. He has been living in France for 32 years. He is married to a French housewife, 46, and the couple have an eight-year-old son.

However, after working as a chef for a year at a one-Michelin-starred restaurant, he decided the chef's life was not for him because of the hectic lifestyle and odd working hours.

He says: "I was working from 9am to 11pm, six days a week with only a three-hour break in between a day. When prepping for service, I'd be chopping 10kg of onions, separating 12 dozen eggs and cleaning 10kg of langoustines, as well as pheasants and guinea fowl. I didn't do it long, but I did enough to understand how tough it is."

Yet, he always stayed connected to the food and beverage industry and has worked in various jobs such as a waiter and sommelier, as well as at a multi-national food packaging company.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?


    I guess I wouldn't be hungry, so I'll just have a glass of water, blindfolded.

His position with the Michelin Guide was not something he had expected. He was hired by the French tyre company to work as vice-president for sales and marketing in the motorcycle division.

After four years, he was offered the role to head the famous guides, where he gets to dine all over the world and hobnob with chefs and restaurateurs.

But his life is not always about eating fancy meals. He does not eat much breakfast and avoids sugary and packaged food.

 
 

"I'm more of a bitter, sour and acidic guy," says Mr Ellis, who enjoys Italian aperitifs such as Campari and Fernet Branca.

On how he honed his tastebuds for the job, he says: "I guess I was born with a good palate. I'm sensitive to smells and odours. Someone sitting nearby with a strong perfume or the smell of cigarettes will ruin my meal."

Tell us about your role with the Michelin Guide.

In the first quarter of the year, I do a lot of administration and evaluation as well as prepare for the mothership French guide.

In the second quarter, I travel to visit the chef community and we hold cooking events and dialogues. I get a break in August, before the slew of guide releases from September to December. I am not a Michelin inspector and my dining experiences are never taken into account.

What does it take to become an inspector?

We get at least 30,000 e-mail messages a year on which restaurants deserve stars and almost the same number from people wanting to be Michelin inspectors.

Our inspectors have experience in the food and beverage scene, such as going through hotel or hospitality school. It takes six months to one year to train an inspector.

When an inspector dines at a restaurant, he has to write detailed table trials that describe everything from food quality to flavour.

During the hiring process, a senior inspector accompanies a potential inspector to a one-Michelin-starred restaurant. There, they order the same dish and write table trials.

Both trials are compared and you can tell if the new person has potential. Unfortunately, those who have great tastebuds may not be good writers and vice versa. More people end up failing, so it is a long-drawn process.

Your job takes you all over the world. What are some exotic food you have eaten?

Dried ants in Brazil which had the most intense lemon flavour; snake soup in Hong Kong; and ostrich and alligator in South Africa.

Any food on your wish list?

I wouldn't mind trying ortolan, a rare bird that used to be sold in France and eaten whole.

What are your childhood memories of food?

I grew up eating basic food such as potatoes, broccoli, chicken and hamburgers.

What is your favourite food in Singapore?

I love laksa, fishballs, curry puffs, chicken rice, nasi goreng and fish head curry - the spicier the better.

So you can eat all things spicy?

I thought so until about 30 years ago, when I was at a beachside restaurant in Phuket and ate basil chicken curry. It was the hottest thing I have eaten and I thought I had ruined my tastebuds because I could not taste anything for the next 24 hours.

The cook asked me if I could take spicy food and I was like, "Come and get me." Yes, he got me.

What would you indulge in?

A good hamburger, and pizza from Naples, Italy - it is all about the handmade dough pushed with fingers.

What is your worst cooking disaster?

When I was in graduate school, I was making dinner rolls with puff pastry from scratch.

I put them in the oven to bake for 30 minutes and decided to go for a run. However, I ran into someone I knew and I came back to an entire house filled with smoke.

Does your son cook with you?

Yes, he has his own chef's apron. We make souffles together.

What else do you cook at home?

Cooking is therapy for me. I like to do traditional French dishes such as coq au vin (chicken braised in wine), pot au feu (beef stew) and boeuf bourguignon (slow-cooked beef braised in wine).

What is your take on molecular gastronomy?

It certainly got people to think differently about food. People wonder whether a carrot is actually chicken or whether a savoury dish is a dessert. I'm not too keen on it and it's not that trendy these days.

If you could have a meal with someone, who would you pick?

The late Auguste Escoffier, the man who transformed French cooking and made the kitchen a brigade with chef ranks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Dried ants and snake soup'. Print Edition | Subscribe