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Michelin's New Era

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 three stars.

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 ex–hotel 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 in sight.

"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.


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