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Michelin's New Era

Of three revolutions currently under way in France—the political one signaled by voters' rejection of a new European Union constitution, the spiritual one suggested by a pre-putsch atmosphere of depression, and the gastronomic one driven by chefs sending their stars back to Michelin as if they were a plate of cold greasy bacon—no French voluptuary thinks that the culinary-rankings revolution isn't the most momentous. It took the riots that swept the country last fall to divert sentient eaters, as they lifted fork to mouth, from l'affaire Michelin.

Alain Senderens, late of Paris's Lucas Carton restaurant, is only the most illustrious example of a French chef who has rebuffed the Michelin red guide by "renouncing" (his word) his rating. What a rating. For 28 years Senderens held three stars, the guide's highest honor. Adding his voice to those of colleagues across France who are taking their destinies out of Michelin's hands and into their own, he disdains the stars for what he says they reward: puffed-up service, boilerplate "luxury," and dishes with sticker-shock ingredients like lobster and caviar.

The criticism is as antique as the 106-year-old guide. What's new is chefs daring to voice it frankly. Senderens shuttered Lucas Carton with the express purpose of "abandoning" his stars and slashing his costs to launch Senderens, a more relaxed restaurant that opened on the same site in September.

Why should you care about a bunch of tire-company Euro foodocrats?Of the French publications that hand out grades, Michelin is the one chefs have historically sought most to seduce, often at the expense of customers' wants and needs. If the guide's MO collapses, anything can happen. Not only might you eat better at restaurants in France, naff displays of drowned vegetables could be banished from them forever. Think of that.

Senderens's spitting in the soup comes at a turbulent time for Michelin. Last year, 50,000 copies of its Benelux edition were pulled from bookstores because of the little matter of featuring the Ostend Queen in Belgium, which did not yet exist at the time of publication. The restaurant was ranked without being tested, a body blow to any guide but crippling for Michelin, which takes every opportunity to remind the world of its more-rigorous-than-thou standards. In a sequence of events that sounds rather too tidy, the head of the Benelux guide retired shortly before news of the disaster broke.

More holes were shot in Michelin's reputation by L'inspecteur se met à table (The Inspector Sits Down to Eat), a tasty tell-all by a man who toiled as one of the French guide's appraisers for 16 years and lived to tell about it. According to Pascal Rémy, Michelin is swayed by military-style lobbying offensives waged by chefs desperate to recuperate lost stars. He also charges that a third of the nation's three-star demigods (Paul Bocuse is one) can do nothing to lower their scores because the guide considers them "untouchable." In a page-one article, Le Monde called the battle between Rémy and his former employer (surprise, he was fired) "A Tempest In a Casserole." Michelin answered with full-page newspaper ads that scolded the author as if he were a schoolboy for creating a bad image of France. If you were in Paris the morning the papers came out, you could almost hear Rémy cry "Ouch." Adding to its troubles, Michelin was also fingered in the gunshot-to-the-head suicide of Bernard Loiseau, who at his death in 2003 at the age of 52 claimed three stars for Burgundy's La Côte d'Or. Loiseau is famous for having pursued the guide's recognition more aggressively than anyone, anywhere, ever. It's a tale publishers have no trouble selling. When you finish Burgundy Stars and The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, there's always Bernard Loiseau, mon mari by his widow, Dominique. Not to mention all those Paris-Match cover stories.

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