Michelin's New Era
Chefs returning their hard-won stars, a tell-all book, a controversial New York City guide—mon Dieu!—these are interesting times for Michelin, says Christopher Petkanas
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.
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 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 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.
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.1995
Burgundy Stars, the tale of Bernard Loiseau's three-star pursuit, is published.2003
Loiseau kills himself amid speculation that La Côte d'Or might lose a star.2004
Disgruntled ex-Michelin appraiser Pascal Rémy publishes a tell-all.January 2005
Benelux guide is pulled for reviewing the Ostend Queen before its opening.March 2005
Philippe Gaertner of Aux Armes de France, in Alsace, withdraws from Michelin.May 2005
The Perfectionist, an account of Loiseau's life and death, is published.July 2005
Alain Senderens abandons his stars when he closes Lucas Carton.September 2005
Senderens's namesake restaurant opens on the site of Lucas Carton.November 2005
Michelin's New York guide is unveiled at a party held at the Guggenheim Museum.