The latest Michelin guide to France contains 19 three-star restaurants, 81 two-star and 502 one-star. By contrast, the 1993 Michelin Great Britain and Ireland guide, published last week, lists two three-star, five two-star and 42 one-star. Chefs in Britain are increasingly reading the discrepancy as an insult. Why, they ask, should the British suffer this from a French guide? And a few chefs have done more than ask: they have given Michelin its marching orders.

It was the lunch-time peak at the Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny, Gwent, when a customer paid his bill, produced his identification card and asked to see the chef. He was from Michelin. He had some questions.

Franco Taruschio emerged from the kitchen, dripping with sweat, and let rip in thickly accented English. The Michelin guide, he said, was the bane of British catering. It recognised an expensive, arcane sort of hospitality that no Briton craved. It encouraged enthusiastic young British chefs to ignore their own cookery and to ape the French. Worse still, the elaborate efforts required to achieve its accolades left cooks exhausted and in debt.

The Walnut Tree Inn had a red 'M', the next best symbol to a star. As he calmed down, Mr Taruschio asked the Michelin man to be so kind as to inform head office that it could keep its 'M'. Several days later, Michelin head office rang the Walnut Tree. Was Mr Taruschio quite sure? Quite. That was mid-1990. Since then, the Walnut Tree Inn has been omitted from every Michelin guide.

It is not every cook whom Michelin would attempt to cajole back to its pages. It must have known that Mr Taruschio is no hot-head. Rather, he is a courtly 55-year-old Italian. Since he and his English wife, Ann, set up the Walnut Tree Inn almost 30 years ago, they have become two of Britain's most popular restaurateurs.

The inn was, famously, Elizabeth David's favourite restaurant. It is more of a pub, bustling and cheery, but the cooking is first class. Moreover, the Taruschios are role models for many of the country's brightest young chefs, including Simon Hopkinson of Bibendum in London, and Shaun Hill of Gidleigh Park in Devon.

It was, perhaps, the bruising of Shaun Hill by Michelin that provoked Mr Taruschio's uncharacteristic outburst. Mr Hill's demotion from five years of one star to a red 'M' in the 1990 guide, and his promotion back to a star last week in the 1993 edition, has rekindled a fierce debate among British caterers and consumers.

Exactly what influence does Michelin have? Do we need it? Do we want it? Do we even use it? Should Michelin, as the Scottish saying goes, 'get tae France'?

The influence of Michelin within the catering industry is extraordinary. 'When I lost my star, nearly all the cooks buggered off,' Shaun Hill says. 'I was left with one cook and every guide inspector in the world coming to see if I'd gone down the pan. Within the trade they use it as a mini-Oscar.'

Further evidence of Michelin's influence is provided by the case of Jean-Christophe Novelli, the young French chef of the Provence at Gordleton Mill, near Lymington, Hampshire. He has cooked in Britain for 10 years, including stints for Marco Pierre White and Keith Floyd.

The Provence received rave reviews in the national press. Yet Mr Novelli sees his first Michelin star this year as his salvation. 'Every time I find a job, I have to fight,' he says. 'Now I know my job is secure.'

Mr Novelli has few greater fans than Jonathan Meades, restaurant critic of the Times, yet he considers Michelin stars as no assurance of success, Mr Novelli's or anyone else's. 'There's a point where restaurants are going to have to decide if (a) they want a Michelin star or (b) to survive as commercial ventures,' he says.

'In the past 14 months, three Michelin starred restaurants have gone out of business: Cavaliers' and Sutherlands in London, and Les Alouettes in Esher, Surrey. They were doing something that pleased Michelin but didn't have popular appeal.'

The penalties are not just financial. David Adlard, of Adlard's in Norwich, suffered a stroke running his Michelin-starred restaurant. He recovered, the restaurant is excellent, but the star was stripped from him last week. Raymond Blanc fell prey to a stroke at 41 running the Michelin two-star Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford. At only 28, Marco Pierre White suffered a physical breakdown in achieving two stars in London.

Harsh reality seems unlikely to crack Mr Novelli's dedication to Michelin, which verges on the religious. 'In France, a Michelin star is very important,' he says, 'like your first communion.'

Michelin will not say how many guides it sells in Britain, but it does say that ordinary Britons as well as tourists use it. Derek Brown, editor of the British Michelin for 18 of its 19 years, points out that the 1992 edition was on the Bookseller's bestseller list for 14 weeks. However, restaurateurs say it is not Michelin that regular eaters-out would be most likely to follow, but either The Good Food Guide or Egon Ronay's Cellnet Guide.

Although the Michelin star has entered the language as the benchmark of British cooking standards, more British critics appear to be blowing the Michelin guide a raspberry. After Shaun Hill's demotion in 1990, the Ronay guide promoted him from one to two stars; last November, just before the 1993 Michelin went to press, Ronay named him as its Chef of the Year.

Among British critics of Michelin, Mr Meades says that it 'gives people totally the wrong idea of what's available in this country. It's rather like the English Tourist Board.'

Fay Maschler, restaurant critic for the London Evening Standard, says: 'I think if you came to London as a stranger with the Michelin guide, you'd never get to go to the good places. You'd never go to the places that make London distinctive. You'd never go to Kensington Place, you'd never go to the Ivy, you'd never go anywhere that was really good fun.'

Simon Parkes worked for Michelin for six years and defends the thoroughness of his former employer. Now a restaurant reviewer for Vogue and contributor to Radio 4's Food Programme, he thinks the red 'M' symbol was the closest Michelin language came to popular standards.

'The red 'M' started out as a halfway house to a star,' he says. 'I was never completely sure what it meant, and if I wasn't, it's hard to see how anybody else would be. It was basically for restuaurants that we liked that didn't put spun sugar cages over their puddings.'

Spun sugar cages are just one of the elaborations that go into winning Michelin stars. Others include formal service, synchronised cloche lifting, wine waiters who do not allow you to touch your own bottle, ruched curtains and conservatories with chintzy sofas. There will probably be dinky trays of amuse-gueules sabayons, souffles, sauces with everything, tortuous garnishing and punishing prices. There will usually be a set number of 'luxury' ingredients: scallops, lobster, langoustine, foie gras, sea bass - sometimes scallops in sea bass. And the style of cooking will almost always be French.

Mr Brown objects to the suggestion that Michelin goes looking for a set style. Rather, he says, it finds it. Michelin, he says, employs a team of nine inspectors, each of whom eats 400 to 500 inspection meals a year. Each is British, each will have graduated from catering college and each has at least five years' experience in catering. Starred restaurants will have been visited as many as a dozen times a year. British inspectors will be joined by French inspectors to assure 'homogeneity'. Homogeneity he quickly retracts; he meant consistency.

Shaun Hill finds this hard to credit. His cooking did not change before, or after, stars. He thinks chefs should cook what they like, as he does at Gidleigh, be it chicken livers in pasta or Peking duck. Such anarchy may have cost him his star. The problem with Michelin, he says, is 'you've got people cooking what they don't understand for people who are not sure what they ought to eat'.

Young English chefs feel they have to mimic French food in order to get a star. Gary Rhodes received one during his stint at the Castle at Taunton, Somerset, from 1986-1990. The menu was in English but the food was French, he says.

The proprietor, Kit Chapman, encouraged him to experiment with classic British food, which he did in an extremely limited fashion, as lunchtime specials. 'It still wasn't totally British,' he says. 'I was too much afraid. I was too worried about losing the star.'

He stopped worrying when he moved to the Greenhouse Hotel in London and wrote an entirely British menu. Now he is very successful, un-starred and proud of it. 'Michelin cannot possibly see faggots, oxtail and bread and butter pudding as warranting a star,' he says. 'I'm not bothered.'

Mr Chapman, a passionate proponent of British cookery, sees it differently. His new chef, Phil Vickery, has introduced British specials such as potted game and spiced pear. Michelin found them palatable, and the Castle regained its star last week. 'We've won this Michelin star on our own terms, not what are perceived as Michelin terms,' Mr Chapman says.

Chinese-American chef and cookery writer Ken Hom, a critic of Michelin with international experience, contributes to the BBC, the New York Times, Australian Vogue and the American Gault-Millau. He has eaten and cooked across Europe, Asia, the Antipodes and Britain. 'It was interesting that the food at the Dorchester's Oriental got a star,' he says. 'There is much more interesting oriental food in London at a fraction of the price.

'Some of your best restaurants, such as Bibendum, aren't starred at all. The place is stunning and the service is excellent. Perhaps the food is a bit rustic, but you have French one-stars that are rustic. Michelin doesn't really make sense outside of France.'

Mr Hom was surprised not to find Fung Shing, thought by many to be the best restaurant in London's Chinatown, in the new Michelin. In fact, it is there (unstarred) but the London guide is set out by borough, and few tourists would think to look up Fung Shing under Soho, or Soho under Westminster.

That a tourist visiting East Anglia, however, would not find what is arguably the best restaurant in Suffolk, the Fox and Goose in Fressingfield, is no question of indexing. Proprietor Ruth Watson prefers it that way.

Several years ago, she left a luxurious country house hotel to run a pub with top-notch food. She grows many of the salad leaves and herbs she uses. The chef, Brendan Ansbro, may send out ultra-fresh cod simply battered and fried with chips. Open fires roar in a large stone hearth. Yet Michelin rated them with one black and white knife and fork.

'It's an insult,' says Mrs Watson. 'I thought I'd rather not be in the guide.' So last summer she wrote to Michelin asking to be excluded. 'We've got to persuade chefs that it doesn't matter,' she says. 'And if we succeed, maybe Michelin will go back to France with its tail between its legs.'


Les Alouettes

IN Emily Green's Michelin guide report on these pages last week, we stated that the Esher, Surrey, restaurant 'Les Alouettes' had gone out of business. We accept that this was not correct, but that after a revamp in September, it relaunched as 'The New Les Alouettes' brasserie, which we understand is flourishing. We are happy to set the record straight and we apologise for any embarrassment caused.

(Photographs omitted)