PMT (Pre-Michelin Tension) grows as chefs start to count their lucky stars

For The small, intensely self-regarding world of haute cuisine, this is a weekend of high anxiety. Tomorrow morning the Michelin Guide, the pitiless red bible beloved by foodies, takes the lid off its 1997 French edition.

With the silent waxing or waning of a star here or a star there, culinary reputations will rise or fall like souffles. The guide famously never explains or justifies; there can be no appeal against the exquisitely discriminating taste buds of its faceless inspectors. As Le Monde says: "The court of auditors instils fear, the Michelin terrorises".

Will the Tour d'Argent, one of the most chic restaurants in Paris for more than a century, recover the cherished third star, removed in the 1996 guide? Almost certainly not, say the experts.

Will the acknowledged new superstar of French cuisine, Alain Ducasse, become the first chef to be awarded six stars - three each for his Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, and the famous restaurant he took over last year in Paris? Probably.

Will the celebrated but bankrupt Pierre Gagnaire, the first chef in France to take three Michelin stars into receivership, win another three stars for the Paris restaurant he is now running? Probably not, even though his food is acknowledged to be superlative. The guide is expected to give him only two stars and make him wait another year for his third.

The 1997 guide - expected circulation 600,000 - will be published in the teeth of an economic crisis in France which has somewhat thinned the clientele for gastronomy of the highest ambition and highest prices. Mr Gagnaire is the best-known victim. He was forced to close his restaurant in Saint Etienne, his unfashionable home town, three years after earning his three stars. He got no sympathy from the locals. "Saint Etienne does not want a restaurant charging 1,500 francs (pounds 170) for a meal when people cannot find 15 francs for their children's canteen lunches," commented the mayor, Michel Thiolliers. Mr Gagnaire fled to Paris, where his new restaurant is always fully booked. "They hated my success in Saint Etienne," he said.

The economic squeeze has also produced something which would have been unthinkable a few years ago: a system of stand-by, cut-price tables in starred restaurants, modelled on the system of stand-by airline tickets. Twenty restaurants in Paris and the provinces, each with at least one Michelin star, are taking part in the scheme, devised by a travel entrepreneur, Francois Reverse. If you manage to get a booking through Minitel, the computer- information and booking service run by France Telecom, you pay a maximum of 450 francs (pounds 50) a head, including wine - less than half the normal bill.

The really top chefs - who enjoy the status in France of movie stars or racing drivers - would not dream of belonging to such a scheme. The most successful of all, potentially the most successful of all time, is Mr Ducasse, 40, a duck farmer's son from the south-west with a passion for motor-cycles and designer suits. In three years he took the fusty Louis XV hotel restaurant in Monaco to three-star status (famous, among other things, for truffled risotto and duckling roasted in fig leaves).

Last year a gastronomic legend of the previous generation, Joel Robuchon, announced his retirement and invited Mr Ducasse to replace him at his three-star restaurant in Paris. If, as expected, Michelin leaves its status unchanged, Mr Ducasse will be the first chef ever to have two three-star restaurants in one edition of the guide.

At present there are 19 three-star restaurants in France, 79 with two stars and 437 with one star. (Michelin awards three stars to four restaurants in Britain).

Every year Michelin receives as many as 25,000 letters from readers recommending, or criticising, potential or existing listings. Each year several hundred would-be celebrated chefs bravely put themselves forward for inspection. Customers can recommend, chefs can beseech: only the Michelin's inspectors can decide.

The inspectors are paid and, usually, professional hoteliers or restaurateurs themselves. The first visit is incognito, until the heart-stopping moment when the inspector declares himself and asks for a tour of the kitchens.

The second visit is announced in advance. Further visits, by other inspectors, are anonymous, and lively arguments often ensue among them. One star? Two stars? More and more visits may be necessary.

It is said it took 17 visits in one year to one two-star restaurant before the inspectors could finally agree on a promotion to three stars - nice work if you can get it.

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