They couldn't stand the heat...
A Michelin star is the pinnacle of any chef's career. But for some, the accolade comes at a price
Saturday 25 February 2012
It's the most sought-after prize in the food industry, the badge of honour that promises a dining experience of the highest quality, but the weight of expectation placed on Michelin-starred restaurants became too burdensome for one chef this week. Skye Gyngell, head chef at Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond, south-west London, quit her post after eight years' service, saying she could no longer meet the demands of new customers who flooded in when she received her first Michelin star last year.
"It's been a curse. That probably sounds very ungrateful," she said, adding she'd had to fend off diners' complaints, including a customer who bemoaned that there was only one cheese on the menu.
"You know, if you're used to eating at Marcus Wareing then they feel let down when they come here."
Such pedantry is familiar to Marc Wilkinson, chef patron at Fraiche, in Birkenhead, Merseyside. His restaurant has retained the star it was awarded in 2009. "They come in and say we expected [this and] that because you have a Michelin star, but one-star Michelin is for the food on the plate, not a chandelier or a massive wine list. People come in and say, 'You haven't got a certain Montrachet, that's disgusting'," he said.
When chefs enter Michelin's red book, they find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Keep the star and face the pressure of maintaining the requisite grandeur, or suffer a downgrade and be subject to public ignominy.
"For the restaurant's sake we are better with it than without," said Mr Wilkinson. "If you lose the star then you might as well pack up and go home because it will create a total wave of negativity."
It was the prospect of losing one of his three precious stars that led to the suicide of famous French chef Bernard Loiseau in 2003.
He had already been humiliated by a downgrade of 2 points to 17 out of 20 in the rival Gault Millau guide, and newspapers speculated that Michelin inspectors would be similarly unimpressed. Three-star chef Jacques Lameloise said Loiseau told him: "If I lose a star, I'll kill myself."
He slipped away after lunch for a nap, and shot himself with his hunting rifle. It turned out that reports of him losing a star were pure fantasy, and his restaurant La Côte d'Or in Saulieu, Burgundy, has retained its stars to this day.
But other chefs at world renowned restaurants decided to escape the world of haute-cuisine before it became too much. Marc Veyrat retired from the three-star kitchen at Auberge de l'Eridan, in Annecy, south-east France, in 2009 citing "health reasons".
"I had reached the limit of what I could do," he added. His departure came just after Olivier Roellinger closed Maisons de Bricourt in Brittany. "I can no longer continue cooking. My legs no longer hold me," he claimed.
A spokeswoman for the Michelin Guide said Skye Gyngell's Petersham Nurseries had "always been very busy at lunchtimes" and the feedback from its apparently demanding customers had been "very good".
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