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Michelin's New Era

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.

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