Michelin's New Era
Published: April 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Chefs returning their hard-won stars, a tell-all book, a controversial New York City guide—<em>mon
Dieu!</em>—these are interesting times for Michelin, says <span class="caps">Christopher
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
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.
The food press killed Bernard Loiseau, even most of the food press agrees. Or he allowed
himself to be killed by it. Weeks before Loiseau took his own life, the shabby GaultMillau
docked him two points, giving him a grade of 17 out of a possible 20. And he was convinced
his third Michelin star was in jeopardy. His rating was secure for another year, but Loiseau,
who suffered from bipolar disorder, was tortured by something he'd learned from the guide's
big boss: customers had sent in letters criticizing his sauces. Writing in Le Figaro, François Simon said that where Michelin was concerned, the chef was "living on borrowed
time." "The media want my scalp," Loiseau told his wife. Two days later he was dead. Not incidentally,
Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, as it is known today under Dominique Loiseau's direction, maintains
The one partially encouraging event in recent Michelin history was the November launch of
its first red guide for New York City. They said it would never happen, but the old maddeningly
cryptic, poker-faced format has been retired for a friendlier one with more information, though
not all the new features are an improvement. (Recipes?Why?) Starred restaurants get an entire
page and a picture, all others a half page of text only.
The text, which is rife with errors (Metro for subway; a nonexistent à
la carte menu at Le Bernardin) and has the telltale tinniness of a bad translation, would
give you indigestion if it didn't put you to sleep first. Sample: "Unexpected combinations
of flavors and textures [at Jean Georges] characterize the perfectly timed courses." Michelin
proudly never hires journalists to be anonymous inspectors—a policy it might want to
rethink for the future health of the franchise—only hospitality professionals, and not
all of them from the food sector. (Does an exhotel general manager really know a pink peppercorn's
properties?) The guide, whose parent company is, of course, French, might also want to reconsider
its transparent cultural bias. Of the four places in New York awarded three stars, three have
Frenchmen at the helm—Alain Ducasse at Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Jean
Georges, and Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. The fourth, Per Se, is steered by a chef who is
as good as French: Thomas Keller trained at seven restaurants in France.
Keller is where Alain Senderens was nearly three decades ago: thrilled to be consecrated.
But it was the "worse" part of the "for better or worse" pact chefs have entered into with
Michelin for generations that finally got to Senderens.
"I was pounded with useless monthly expenses—$23,000 for laundry, $6,000 for flowers,"
he says, noting that his average dinner tab is now $130 without wine, or 75 percent less than
it was at Lucas Carton. At his new restaurant, turbot and bass are sidelined in favor of very
un-three-star, blue-collar mussels and sardines. There are two sommeliers instead of eight.
Tables are innocent of cloths. And there's not a strangled pincushion arrangement of tea roses
"Someone has to pay for all that: the client," explains Senderens. "To win three stars you
must run a very formal operation and make a monumental economic investment. If the china isn't
Dior, Michelin isn't interested. The importance they place on personnel and décor,
it's démodé. You should be able to use plastic tablecloths and get
three stars. You should get them for what's on the plate."
Chefs were told for so long that stars are as good for business as they are for the ego,
they forgot to ask if it was actually true. Now, that assumption is being refuted. Chefs acknowledge
that many diners are in fact disinclined to go to starred restaurants, that the tra-la-la
and big tickets associated with them are a deterrent. If enough people join the revolution,
Michelin could be stripped of its power and become just another GaultMillau, useful for telephone
numbers. In this scenario, a wide opening would be created for Le Pudlo France, the
rare guide with an atmosphere of connoisseurship.
Philippe Gaertner of Aux Armes de France in Alsace gave back his single star, voicing the
incendiary notions that "[It] doesn't seem to exercise the same attraction" and that haute
gastronomie today "is placed on a pedestal with a suspicion of inaccessibility." Gaertner
held a press conference, explaining, "our clients have other criteria" than the guide's. The
cuisine at the new Aux Armes de France is more rustic, and the prices have been halved, to
about $60 per person. His strategy mocks the whole Michelin system, but Gaertner is praying
that in the upcoming guide he will be compensated with a demotion to a Bib Gourmand. The good-value
rating will make his cash register sing more loudly than a star, he says.
In Provence, Thierry Maffre-Boge changed the name of his establishment from Petite France
to Bistrot la Petite France, cleared the tables of silver and crystal, replaced scallops on
the menu with daube, and accomplished his goal of losing a star. René Bergès
of Le Relais Sainte-Victoire, also in Provence, wishes it had been that easy for him. His
first appeal for his star to be removed was ignored. There are two versions of what happened
next. Michelin says it deleted the star in 2005 because Bergès's cooking had taken
a nosedive. Bergès says it was because he renewed and formalized his demand to the
guide via the post. Like the rest of his countrymen, Bergès believes in the almost
supernatural power of the registered letter to get things done.
Who's spinning whom?Michelin's explanation is at least consistent with official policy:
the guide anoints as it sees fit, irrespective of chefs' wishes. It wasn't always that way.
Outside Le Caribou, in Marseilles, the oldest known example of a restaurant that rejected
the guide, hangs a 1956 letter confirming that the chef's request for his star to be removed
would take effect in the next edition. When in 1977 Maxim's heard that it was about to lose
one of its three stars, it asked to be excised from the book completely rather than lose face.
The request was honored.
Eric Ripert cannot imagine a world in which a good Michelin score would not help his bottom
line. "For those one-star guys to give back their ratings is a little ridiculous," he says.
"The pressure they talk about, it's all in their heads." Mario Batali is unhappy with
the lone star he earned for Babbo in New York, but admits, "Just being in a guide is good.
I know Americans who build whole trips to France around Michelin. But it should reward the
cooking instead of the table setting."
Did Batali just get off the phone with Senderens?By separately rating a restaurant's comfort
level, measured with up to five sets of knives and forks, Michelin has always been able to
insist that stars are awarded for food only. But there is not a starred chef in any of the
15 countries the guide covers who believes this is anything but a party line providing Michelin
with the cover it needs to dispense stars for reproduction Louis XV armchairs and valet parking.
Senderens has backpedaled a bit since dropping his bomb, saying that three-star cooking is
the only kind he knows how to do. But that may have been his plan all along—to get Michelin
to give him three stars for sardines and bare tables. His new venture won't be rated until
March 1, when the 2006 guide hits the stores. Until then, the French will surely find something
else to chew on.
Le Caribou, in Marseilles, famously rejects its star.
Burgundy Stars, the tale of Bernard Loiseau's three-star pursuit, is published.
Loiseau kills himself amid speculation that La Côte d'Or might lose a star.
Disgruntled ex-Michelin appraiser Pascal Rémy publishes a tell-all.
Benelux guide is pulled for reviewing the Ostend Queen before its opening.
Philippe Gaertner of Aux Armes de France, in Alsace, withdraws from Michelin.
The Perfectionist, an account of Loiseau's life and death, is published.
Alain Senderens abandons his stars when he closes Lucas Carton.
Senderens's namesake restaurant opens on the site of Lucas Carton.
Michelin's New York guide is unveiled at a party held at the Guggenheim Museum.