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South Korea paid big money to commission its Michelin Guide. Does that mean U.S. cities could do the same?

Michelin Guides for Washington were placed on napkins for diners at Pineapple and Pearls attending a VIP dinner. (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

People in Washington may balk at the pamphlet-thin weight of our recently released Michelin Guide, which includes only 108 restaurants. But in Seoul, some unhappy customers are saying they haven’t gotten their money’s worth — and that’s not just people who have bought the book.

Korean media are reporting that one politician has been speaking out against Seoul’s 2016 edition of the little red book, which has been described as being full of errors. This may be especially disappointing for him and other Korean officials because — twist! —  they paid Michelin to commission the book.

2017 Fall Dining Guide

Many people in the restaurant industry may not realize that Michelin Guides can be commissioned for a price.

“Some countries and some governments that want to . . . attract tourism, they are very interested in having a guide, and so they sponsor a guide to have the ability to communicate around their gastronomic landscape,” said Claire Dorland Clauzel, the company’s executive vice president overseeing the guides.

While Michelin says it is no secret, it doesn’t seem to be widely publicized, either, at least in the United States. The guides in Seoul, Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore were all commissioned, said Dorland Clauzel. One Korean outlet has reported that the government-run Korea Tourism Organization is paying 400 million won (approximately $350,000) a year for four years to commission the guide, which was released for the first time in 2016 in Seoul. The contract specifies a total of 3.2 billion won in payments over several years of the guide — the equivalent of more than $1 million.

Does this mean that Scranton, Pa., could shell out for a Michelin Guide? No — but maybe another great American food city such as Charleston or Portland, Ore., could. Michelin does not allow just any city to commission guides, Dorland Clauzel said.

“You have to have first the right gastronomic landscape,” she said. “We cannot do the Michelin Guide with 10 restaurants. This is the first condition.”

And Dorland Clauzel emphasized that, while the guides were created under contract with various tourism bureaus in Asia, the process of selecting the restaurants and assigning stars remained independent.

“I am managing the team of the inspectors, guaranteeing the independence of the guide,” said Dorland Clauzel. “There is another team not managed by me that oversees the sponsorship activities.”

That may be a little too close for comfort for people who are already skeptical of Michelin’s secretive methods. The English-language blog Korea Exposé said that “the revelation will be a stain on the reputation of the Michelin Guide.”

It, of course, prompts the question: Was the District’s guide commissioned? It is a rather unusual guide in the Michelin universe: It’s thinner than many others, and sprung up only a year or two after Washington had established itself as a formidable restaurant city — pretty fast for a more-than-100-year-old publication that branched out to North America only in 2006. Its reach is not very broad; when asked why this year’s guide did not expand to the suburbs, as promised, Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guides, said it was because the company “did not have the resources to go beyond the areas we covered last year. … I think as time goes on we’ll be able to do that. We only have so many boots on the ground in terms of the inspection team.”

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It also raises another question: Were the short-lived Los Angeles and Las Vegas guides discontinued because of contracts that ran out? But when asked if there are, or have ever been, sponsored or commissioned guides in the United States, Dorland Clauzel replied, “No, never.” She would not rule out any sponsored American guides in the future.

“We had seen that the gastronomic landscape in Washington was the right one,” she said. “It was time to come. It’s an independent decision.”

Well, that and a few other factors. Last year, Ellis said that tourism to the nation’s capital, as well as the tire company’s business interests, played a role in its choice.

As for the errors in the Seoul guide: The government official complained that there were typos, and miscategorizations of restaurants, such as listing a restaurant with no outdoor spaces as having a terrace. One restaurant included in the guide was closed, but Dorland Clauzel says that this happens from time to time when a restaurant folds after the guide has gone to print but before it is released. And there were instances of strange word choice: The guide called blue crabs “flower” crabs, and named one dish “autumn mudfish soup.”

Dorland Clauzel said that many native Korean speakers are among the inspectors who visit the restaurants and compile the guides.

“There can be some interpretation of the translation. We don’t think it is an error,” she said.