Sophie Gayot’s life revolves around food and the business of restaurants. Gayot is the daughter of André Gayot, one of the co-founders of GaultMillau, a French restaurant guide that took on the classic, but stuffy Michelin Guide in 1969 with a more contemporary approach. The family sold off the business in 1989, but retained the rights to the U.S. market, which it had entered earlier in the decade. Sophie Gayot and her brother Alain now run the business with their father. While GaultMillau Inc. is based in Los Angeles, she continues, along with her father, to live in Paris, which means lots of long flights back and forth. Her brother lives in Los Angeles. Sophie Gayot is the company’s chief food critic, writing reviews and photographing eateries. She is also part of its management team, handling public relations work and overseeing some of the company’s other ventures. The company switched to an Internet-only format in 2002 and has struck partnerships with other online enterprises, such as MSN, which carries Gayot reviews. The jet-setting businesswoman sat down with the Business Journal in her L.A. office to discuss her approach to restaurant criticism, the state of American food and how she manages her bicontinental life.
Question: Why do you think people should trust your food reviews?
Answer: They trust, or at least I hope, the name of Gayot, which has been in business for over 40 years. Over the course of the years, my father, André, and his partners coined the term “Nouvelle Cuisine,” which was a big revolution in the world of
What are your favorite restaurants in Los Angeles?
I cannot answer that question. My personal taste for a restaurant you will never know. My personal taste has nothing to do with what I am going to tell you about the restaurant. And I am not friends with the chefs – rule No. 1.
What are your favorite foods?
No answer to this question. I don’t have a favorite since I have to be objective, and I cannot say a dish is not good because it would not be made with one of my favorite foods.
Were you a finicky eater as a child?
But were you adventurous?
Always. I eat basically everything from snails to brain, tongue, calf head, kidneys, frogs and much more. And I would try anything that would be presented.
When did you first get involved in the family business?
As soon as I got out of university. When you are in high school, people ask you what you want to do. I said, “I am going to work with my father.” I knew even before the end of high school that I would go work for him.
So you went to university with that in mind?
Yes, to learn the basics, the big notions of what business involves, even though I had some idea. I went to school in Paris, I got accepted to an MBA school and I got accepted to a BA school. I did both at the same time.
You speak English very well. Did you learn at the university?
I have an accent but not like the typical French accent. We used to go to summer camps in the U.S. starting when I was 12. It was back east, Massachusetts. I have a long history of coming here, so let’s say I know the U.S. as much as France. We were coming for the summer. We would take a car and start driving all around the national parks.
I’m surprised you vacationed at national parks.
I love open space. That’s something I like about the U.S., the space. People say, “Why don’t you go to St. Tropez on vacation?” I’m like, “What?” When I was going to Yellowstone, Grand Teton Park and Bryce Canyon, there is all this space and mountains. You go to St. Tropez and you can’t even move.
When was the last time you visited a national park?
I’ve not been on a vacation in 10 years. I’m dead.
Tell me about the history of GaultMillau and Gayot.
GaultMillau started in 1969 in France. It was a monthly magazine and one of the reasons that the chefs now have a face is because of the magazine.
What was it like going up against the Michelin Guide?
It was an upscale phone book with no photos. When we started with the magazine, we had to put photos.
How else was GaultMillau different?
The writing was very particular; it was witty, sexy and funny. It was not boring. There was a whole style around the writing. That’s what made it really famous really fast. Not only ratings but they had the text so people would know the décor would be that way, the hostess was rude or was nice, the chef was tall or a nice guy. You had more. You had a relation with the restaurant before you’d even go there. People would read the reviews and say, “That is exactly what happened when I went.”
Are you still different today? There are so many restaurant review sites now.
We are different because out text is done by professionals with a style; that’s the big difference from the other guys. The other guys – Yelp.com, Zagat – everybody writes their stuff. We are like the Hermes of food critics. We are the same market, a different clientele. The professional aspect is very important. We are very strict that when we hire writers, they are professional writers. In every market we cover, they are professional people in their world. They know the chefs. We’ve had some people working for us for over 20 years.
Was your father involved in the food world prior to starting the guide?
He was a journalist. He learned English with the GIs in Algeria. He was very interested in consumerism. The restaurant reviewers were the two other partners that he had.
What was your first job for GaultMillau?
My father was more on the business side of it, so I was more on the business side. It was in the 1980s. So I was talking to the printers and (handling) some of the technical aspects of how to produce a book or magazine. I was business manager. There were 50 people working for the company. It was a big operation based in Paris.
When did you get involved in the U.S. arm of the business?
In the company in Paris I was the only one speaking English. Somebody had to coordinate the books from Paris. The book about France – I was coordinating that – because we were translating the French book into English. I was the only one that could put all the pieces together because I could speak English.
How did the book come to the United States?
In 1981 we came to the U.S. It was a business decision because the U.S. is a big market. The L.A. office started around 1984. When we started coming here there were not too many restaurants. Now it’s a whole different world. We sold GaultMillau France in 1989. When we sold, we, the Gayots, kept the license to do the book in English. This book became very successful in the U.S. and we started building the brand name in the U.S. We still have the style that we had in France.
When did you start coming to L.A.?
When the Internet started. We had a big contract with AOL. They wanted restaurant reviews. They’d known us through the books and they said, “Can you do the restaurant reviews for our site?” My brother said to me, “Can you come help?” Help meaning I would come do it. I landed here Aug. 1, 1999. I said, “I will help you and my son will be able to pick up some English.” Now he has no accent.
What happened with AOL?
The partnership ended in 2002. We didn’t have the right to launch (our own Web site) until it was done with AOL. In 2002, we shifted from doing books to only doing Internet.
What’s the benefit of making it a Web-only business?
People don’t buy books anymore. The beauty of the Internet is (that) they were usually a yearly book, and then the chef leaves – and sorry, we just came out, it’s not my fault. In the Internet, constantly you update. It’s being updated 24-7.
How often are you here in L.A.?
I am here every month and a half and work nonstop.
I understand you are planning to get your green card.
I would be proud to become a resident. I could be here longer.
You come here in seven- to 10-day increments. Walk me through what those trips are like.
I go out to restaurants, evaluate places, write the reviews and mingle with chefs. I know the chefs, but I am not friends with them. I went to Sona two weeks ago and I was telling my guests it would be a five-hour dinner. I was off by 10 minutes. It was four hours and 50 minutes. I do my own photos. The pictures that go online I select them, retouch them and crop them. My reviews are long.
Are you involved in any partnerships and ventures?
MSN is someone we work with very closely. (The Gayot reviews) are also on OpenTable.com. There is a mobile phone application (in development). In the works is a TV show. It’s in development. I would be the talent. There is not enough to tell you more now.
What would the show be like?
It will be me eating dinner. It would be criticizing, live in the restaurant. (It will show) whatever it takes me to get to my review on the Internet. It would be the whole process.
Are you a tough critic?
In person, I am really tough. When I talk to (chefs) I say, “Don’t ever serve that again. Remove it from your menu. It is not good.” I am a little more subtle in my writing. A chef has a wife and kids. There is a waiter that has a wife and kids. You have to respect people’s livelihood. I have to be diplomatic.
Have chefs ever reacted poorly?
One guy. He said, “I don’t care a shit about what you write.”
What’s your take on the emergence of celebrity chefs with television shows, cook books and their own lines of sauces?
There are very few of them compared to the masses of chefs. There is one Tom Cruise, one George Clooney. If you start really looking, there are really only a few of them who could go to that level. There is only one guy in England and that’s Gordon Ramsey.
Your office walls are covered in photos of you with celebrities and politicians, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Ever had dinner with him?
The mayor, he loves food. I have to call his assistant. Every time I say, “Let’s have dinner,” he says, “Yes, of course.” I have to plan it, but I have to travel now so I can’t plan in advance.
By the way, how do you stay in such good shape given all the food you must eat?
My daily walk every morning; I have to keep in shape. Sometimes I don’t even take my phone when I am doing it. I pay attention to what I am eating and drinking both qualitywise and quantitywise.
Do you have any hobbies?
My hobby is waterskiing in Paris. I used to do competitions. It’s just for fun now, because you have to train. I do it on the Seine River, north of Paris. That’s what I would do (to relax).
Does your son, Alexandre, enjoy restaurants as much as you?
He loves it. He knows every chef and he loves food. Good food – and he knows. He lives in Paris. Every six weeks they have a break (in school) and we manage to come at the same time.
One last thing: What do you think of the quality of American food in general?
The good news is that the quality of the American restaurant scene has drastically improved in the past 15 years, and I see more improvements to come. People are now getting used to better food and will want even more.
Company: GaultMillau Inc.
Born: Paris; declined to divulge her age
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business from Dauphine University, Paris; M.B.A., Institut Superieur du Commerce, Paris
Career Turning Point: Starting to work in the U.S. 10 years ago
Most Influential People: Son, Alexandre Meiers, 15
Personal: Lives in Paris, frequents Los Angeles; divorced
Hobbies: Waterskiing and traveling with son