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Leisure: Agony of the Ecstasy

John Mariani

In the world of Michelin three-star restaurants, there is much distinction, but little surprise. Not that the cuisine is homogeneous from one venue to the next, or the decor cut from the same cloth. In this rarefied world, grand luxury takes myriad forms, from the neoclassic boardroom air of Taillevent in the heart of Paris to the landed gentry look of Restaurant dal Pescatore in the Italian farming community of Canneto sull’Oglio.

These establishments are predictable in the most comforting ways. You always know exactly what to expect from the moment you walk through the door of a three-star restaurant. The dining room will be sump-tuous, whether it’s done up with Art Deco flourishes like La Palme d’Or in Cannes, the rusticity of El Bulli outside of Barcelona, or the pastoral look of the Waterside Inn in Bray, England. The atmosphere is sure to be civilized: thick carpeting, heavy draperies, the silkiest of table linens, and no loud music. Menus are often printed on exquisite paper, the wine list thick with great bottlings and vertical vintages.

Then there is the food, which is always based on the best ingredients of the season. Dishes are lavish, with foie gras, truffles, and caviar, yet each is an expression of an individual talent in the kitchen, whose style often showcases the best of a particular region: Alsace, the Rhone Valley, the Basque Country, or the Amalfi Coast.

No doubt you’re familiar with all of these elements. What you don’t know is that these Michelin essentials are threatening the survival of the three-star dining experience. In truth, the cost of maintaining such restaurants has become prohibitive, so that no matter how much is charged for a meal—the tasting menu at the three-star Arpèges in Paris is $195 per person—profit margins are still slim to nonexistent. Adding to this dilemma is customers’ preferences for the more exciting and casual ambience of nonstarred restaurants, which can be far more comfortable than the hushed temples of haute cuisine. Last but certainly not least, it is impossible for restaurateurs and chefs to determine just what will earn them the double-edged boost into the Michelin-star rankings, because the organization categorically refuses to divulge any of its criteria.

Guide Michelin publishers and ed-itors, who evaluate only restaurants in Europe, maintain strict silence about judging, leaving restaurateurs to infer from the awards that three stars require an enormous expenditure for all the trappings, including gold faucets in the WCs and a staggering capital investment in a world-class wine list, whose bottlings may not be ready to drink for years. But these are only assumptions, not rules from any handbook. The inspectors visit anonymously, not once but many times for three-star consideration, and then file their reports for the next edition, which is published every spring. One Michelin star can cause a stampede to a new restaurant; two will assure continued patronage; and three place a restaurant in a rarefied firmament occupied by only 21 so honored in France, three in Spain, three in Italy, and two in Great Britain.

Glory is one thing, however, bankruptcy another. The investment of millions of dollars in real estate, kitchen appliances, decor, a wine cellar, food products, and staff—French workers receive astounding employment benefits and six weeks off a year—can be crushing, no matter how many bottles of Romanée-Conti are sold. The most telling example of this is Pierre Gagnaire, who is said to have spent as much as $9 million on his namesake restaurant in Saint-Étienne to garner three stars—then, having won them, found he could not pay his bills and went bankrupt.

One of London’s most celebrated three-star chefs threw in the toque as well. Nico Landenis asked Michelin to remove the three-star rating from his restaurant (it immediately did), explaining, “The day of expensive restaurants is over. Simple cooking gives me more enjoyment, and that’s the way people want to eat. I’ve made the restaurant more democratic and friendly, with lower prices.” He subsequently redesigned his establishment as the less expensive, more casual Chez Nico, and it has been a hit. “I get a younger crowd who spend less but come more often,” he says.

In many ways, the agonies of the three-star restaurateur are self-imposed. Most begin as perfectionists, and they want everything to be of the highest, most expensive quality, and to maintain an excessive staff-to-guest ratio. Yet in most three-star restaurants, there is no turnover of tables during the night, but rather one seating. A good number of these restaurants do not open for lunch, while many, including five out of seven three-stars in Paris—Alain Ducasse, Taillevent, Arpèges, Grand Vefour, and Pierre Gagnaire (which moved to Paris after the bankruptcy in Saint-Étienne)—do not serve on Saturday evenings. Also, almost all close for the month of August, which is a popular time for the tourist clientele.

Michelin restaurateurs are not eager to change their ways, which is why so many deluxe restaurants are now bankrolled by hotels. For them, a three-star restaurant—even if it loses money—is a powerful promotional tool for booking rooms, where the real profits are made. Following a hiatus, Pierre Gagnaire regained its three-star status after relocating to the Hôtel Balzac in Paris. And even though he is said to have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars for his investors at the Hôtel du Parc, Alain Ducasse was coaxed to Paris’ Hôtel Plaza Athénée, where he was immediately awarded three Michelin stars.

Hotels couldn’t be happier with the arrangement. London’s Claridge’s hotel acquired chef Gordon Ramsay to run its new dining room in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of his own three-star namesake restaurant, and Paris’ Four Seasons Hotel George V stole chef Philippe Legendre from Taillevent, also aiming for three-star status (it currently has two). “Out of respect for the French culinary tradition, we chose a great chef like Philippe Legendre to whom we gave carte blanche to express his creativity to the fullest,” says Didier Le Calvez, general manager of the George V. “This was of the utmost importance in order to get the support of the local community. We needed them to embrace the Four Seasons Hotel George V from the start.”

While the cost of doing business threatens the survival of the three-star experience outside of hotels, now is the right time to get your fix—not to mention a reservation on short notice. Today, very few three-star restaurants in Europe can count on a full house. A visit to just about any ranked restaurant in Alsace, the Riviera, or Provence will reveal an embarrassing number of empty tables. “Restaurants in Paris have lost a minimum of 35 percent of their clientele, especially at dinner,” says Craig Copetas, Paris bureau chief for The Bloomberg Report. “And the three-star restaurants exacerbated their own vulnerability by marketing themselves for so long as a must-go tourist attraction: You go to the Louvre, you visit the Eiffel Tower, and you go to a three-star restaurant. [Since September 11], the tourists are not here, and it’s crushed the three-star restaurants, who are now trying to attract the locals.”

Even the most prestigious of Paris’ restaurants suffer from empty tables. Consider Taillevent—for decades one of the most difficult restaurants to get into on short notice—where 80 percent of the customers at lunch and 40 percent at dinner are there on business. “In the past our customers never expected [business associates] to sign a contract until they had four or five lunches,” says Taillevent’s owner, Jean-Claude Vrinat. “Today, they come to celebrate after the deal. Last year, we seated six to eight people per table; now it’s more often two to four people per table.”

So where are people dining? The truth is, once upon a time in order to eat well, you had to go to an opulent, fussy, and incredibly expensive star-rated restaurant. But this is no longer the case; the style of fine dining has changed. Now you can easily have just as wonderful a feast at restaurants such as The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, Gotham Bar and Grill in New York, Graspa da Ue in Venice, Orrery in London, or Rockpool in Sydney, Australia, as at the prim, three-star Lucas Carton in Paris, where dinner for two can easily mount to more than $500.

Bistros, brasseries, trattorias, grills, and tavernas are more popular than ever because they don’t require the investment of time, advance notice, and hushed reverence at the table that you find at three-star restaurants. “I still love the thrill of going to a three-star restaurant in Europe once in a while,” says Igor Dargery, CEO for an American medical group. “But I have a much better time at a wonderful new hot spot or casual bistro where the food is good.”

Dargery is just one of many patrons seeking a more relaxed dining experience. “We’ve seen a big falloff of American customers, but we’ve maintained our European base,” says Natale Rusconi, general manager of Venice’s Hotel Cipriani. “However, it is our newer, more casual restaurant, Cip’s, that is doing the most business every night.”

Undoubtedly, diners would prefer to have the best of both worlds—and not have to wait for a table in either. It seems to be an agreeable balance as well for top-notch chefs, who have a need to express their art. “Maybe when I’m 65 I’ll have six rotisseries and no Jacques Cagna,” says chef Jacques Cagna, who runs several bistros in Paris in addition to his Michelin-star namesake. “If I do, I will become a businessman, but I want to be both a chef and a businessman. I need Jacques Cagna because this is my life.”

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