Michelin off the menu as French chefs rebel

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The Independent Online

The Fat Red Book, which once commanded terror and obedience, is losing its mystical power to impress the massed ranks of French chefs and foodies.

The Fat Red Book, which once commanded terror and obedience, is losing its mystical power to impress the massed ranks of French chefs and foodies.

That is the conclusion drawn by some observers from the surprisingly ho-hum reaction to the official publication today of France's annual food bible, the Michelin Guide Rouge for 2005 .

The loss of a star in the Michelin used to be a gastronomic catastrophe, equivalent to having one's medals and insignia ripped off on the parade ground. Two years ago a three-star French chef committed suicide, depressed by, amongst other things, rumours that he might lose a Michelin star.

This year, Jacques Le Divellec, a two-star chef in Paris, demoted to only one star, said: "I'm not prostrate. My restaurant is booming. I doubt that I will lose a single booking."

Another starred chef, René Bergès from Beaurecueil, near Aix-en-Provence, had asked in advance to be left out of the 2005 guide. He says his bookings have already increased.

Other outwardly unconcerned losers are the celebrated Pourcel brothers in Montpellier, who joined the international chef-set, when their restaurant was promoted to three-stardom in 1999. They are reduced to two stars in this year's Red Book. (This is said to be a "punishment" from Michelin for spending too long away from their casseroles.)

The brothers issued a statement this week saying, in effect, "so what". Jacques Pourcel said: "There are only two categories of restaurant which matter. Those which are full and those which are empty."

The chefs' revolt is music to the taste-buds of one of France's best-known chefs, Joel Robuchon, who pulled his Paris restaurant out of the Michelin years ago. "As long as the Michelin remains stuck in the past, I have no interest in being mentioned in it," he said yesterday. "Their judging standards are behind the times ... and I am no longer so sure they are so impartial."

Defenders of the Michelin say they detect the flavour of sour grapes. The guide remains the most respected of its kind, they say, vital to rising culinary stars, perhaps less important to well-established chefs and restaurants.

But the reputation of the Michelin Man, has been punctured several times in recent years. In January, Michelin had to recall 50,000 copies of its Benelux guide when it was found to contain praise of a restaurant which had not yet opened.

Three years ago Pasal Rémy, a former Michelin inspector, broke the code of secrecy surrounding the Guide Rouge and claimed that there were only five full-time inspectors to cover the 10,000 restaurants mentioned in the French edition.

He said many well-established starred restaurants were rarely visited and that one in three of the 27 (now 26) three-star restaurants in France were no longer worthy of the highest accolade. Michelin angrily denied all his allegations.

The suicide of the three-star chef Bernard Loiseau two years ago - although it had nothing to do directly with Michelin - has also strained the patience of some chefs with the Michelin system. René Bergès, a friend of M. Loiseau, asked for his one-star Relais Saint-Victoire near Aix-en-Provence to be excluded from the 2005 guide.

"Holding on to a star makes your life impossible," he said yesterday. "You're always fearful that a client is going to send a letter of complaint.

"Now I can accept big tables, jolly or family meals, without worrying that someone is going to complain that my restaurant is too noisy."