Back Page: Truth or Consequences

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

The Michelin Guide’s publishers are notorious for refusing to specify the criteria they use for granting a restaurant their highest, three-star rating. But apparently the Michelin folks have expensive tastes, because, as noted in this month’s account of the guide’s debut in New York City (“Lost in Translation,” page 161), the costs of operating a three-star establishment often are ruinous for the restaurateur. Robb Report has addressed this issue previously, in “Falling Stars over Europe” (May 1999), which recounts why Flemish chef Marc Paesbrugghe gave up his stars, and again in “Agony of the Ecstasy” (August 2002), a feature that opened with a photo of chef Pierre Gagnaire, whose eponymous establishment in Saint-Etienne had closed in 1996 despite earning three Michelin stars.

The inscrutable nature of the Michelin rating system has raised not only the monetary cost of earning the stars, but also the anxiety associated with maintaining them, as exemplified in the extreme by the suicides of chefs Alain Zick in 1966 and Bernard Loiseau in 2003, each rumored to have fallen into despair about their Michelin status. These pressures have prompted some chefs, French among them, to revolt against the institution and return their stars—symbolically, at least; Michelin rates a restaurant regardless of whether it has the chef’s blessing. Unlike other rebels who have rebuffed Michelin by embracing casual fare, Marco Pierre White, the first British-born chef to earn three Michelin stars, stopped cooking altogether and began consulting for restaurants instead. In a February 2003 article that he wrote for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, he called on chefs to invest less in the guide’s pronouncements. “It is the ego of the chefs, after all, that gives the Michelin guide such prestige and status,” White wrote.
 
Alain Ducasse has not joined the revolution. He was celebrated in 1998 when Michelin awarded two of his restaurants, Louis XV in Monaco and Alain Ducasse in Paris, three stars apiece, making him the first chef to hold six stars simultaneously. Upon the release of the Michelin guide to New York, Ducasse became the first nine-star chef, when Alain Ducasse at the Essex House earned the highest rating. But the unique honor conflicts with the opinion of at least one prominent American reviewer. In February 2005, Frank Bruni, lead restaurant critic for The New York Times, demoted Alain Ducasse at the Essex House to three stars from its previous top rating of four. Bruni concluded that “beneath an unfettered pageant is an uneven performance, a wow that wavers, a spell less binding than a restaurant with this much vanity can possibly wish it to be.” Other than the Michelin publishers, no one, including Ducasse, may know exactly why he holds nine of the guide’s stars, but Bruni made it abundantly clear why he lost one of his Times stars.

For reasons known only to Michelin, Manhattan restaurant Daniel, which holds four stars from the Times, received only two stars from Michelin. Three months after the Times ran Bruni’s piece, Ducasse fired executive chef Christian Delouvrier, citing the Times review as a factor in his decision. In contrast, when Michelin snubbed Daniel, as noted by writer Jack Smith in “Lost in Translation,” the restaurant’s owner, Daniel Boulud, regarded as one of the city’s and country’s premier chefs, shrugged it off, saying with a laugh, “I was not going to kill myself.” If Boulud’s attitude is typical of chefs and restaurateurs in New York, where the candid always trumps the cryptic, then Le Guide Rouge will not supplant the Gray Lady as the star that guides diners. 

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