Leading article: Don't let big business put you off your food

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RESTAURANTS ARE not art. Nor are they even the new rock'n'roll. What they are is big business, and getting bigger all the time.

Which is where the annual Michelin guide to the hotels and restaurants of France, published in Paris yesterday, comes in. The award, or withdrawal, of rosettes may make good copy. But it also means a 20-50 per cent rise in prices and plenty of bank finance for the chef who gets them. Give a restaurant one star, and it will change its cellar to sell wines only at pounds 20 and above. Give it three stars, and it will put its cheapest menu at pounds 50 or more.

It's a commercial reality which, though we shouldn't, we are importing into Britain. Prices in restaurants are now shooting up in direct ratio to the ego of the chefs, who have become the superstars of the gossip columns and the terror of the poor benighted diner.

There is no call for this nonsense other than the peculiar game of food guides and their star ratings. In the past 10 years the British have taken to dining out and improved immeasurably the quality of the food in consequence. British chefs have produced a style of eclecticism that has reflected the growing multiculturalism of the country itself and has brought about a distinct style of its own.

But, in celebrating this success, the British culinary industry needs to remember two lessons from France. One is that, however exalted the establishment, for a French restaurant the job is always "faire le business" in which the customer is king or queen and prices are reasonable. It's a message our restaurants and their chefs are in danger of forgetting. The other is the damage that the Michelin and Gault Millau awards system can wreak on the joy of food itself. If French cuisine has declined in the face of the new international style and modern Italian cooking, it is in no small part because the homely regional cuisine has been undermined in the pursuit of the exotic and refined tastes of the expense-account globe-trotting banker.

Don't let business ruin the pleasures of the earth, where the ingredients come from. Cooking is not an artistic comment on life, but a part of it. At its centre must be the domestic kitchen and neighbourhood bistro, with reasonable prices - and no one can beat the French for either.