Star chef finds little appetite for St Etienne

This year marks the 231st anniversary of the invention of the French restaurant, since when no other nation has been so obsessed with food. Gastronomes will make pilgrimages to any corner of France to savour the work of a chef who has been awarded three Michelin stars.

Well, almost any corner, as Pierre Gagnaire discovered. The self-taught genius is fiercely loyal to his home town of St Etienne, but his attempt to put it on the culinary map went belly-up last year.

He spent four years and millions of francs to convert a balustraded 1930s art deco villa to the contemporary style he wanted for his restaurant, and to achieve the standard of comfort Michelin demands for a third star. He succeeded, too: Michelin's ultimate accolade was bestowed in 1993.

Today, however, the villa is in the hands of his creditors, along with the well-stocked wine cellars, the modern art collection, and his home. Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve were among those seeking out his jugged hare and tempura of red mullet, but not enough of the rich and famous were prepared to trek to the unlovely surroundings of an industrial town, with 25 per cent unemployment, nearly 40 miles the wrong side of Lyons.

Gagnaire's story is not over. The 45-year-old chef, described by one of his admirers as "more than an artist, a creator" is now installed in the restaurant of the belle epoque Hotel Balzac in Paris, off the Champs Elysees. Even at 800 francs (pounds 100) a head, you cannot get a reservation in the 40-seat dining-room before February. His Michelin stars, frozen when his St Etienne establishment folded, are expected to be restored when the 1997 red guide is published in March.

Christian Falcucci, who lured his friend to the hotel of which he is director, pointed out the dilemma facing French chefs, no matter how exalted: "Gagnaire had to come to Paris for his cuisine d'auteur to be appreciated." And he still has one problem - there are complaints that the service is slow. "In St Etienne we were happy to spend three hours eating, but this is Paris, where everyone is in a hurry," grumbled one diner.

Today it is not enough to be a gastronomic sensation: the cathedrals of cuisine have to deliver heaven-on-a-plate fast, and have immediate access to a heliport, a high-speed train or a luxurious hotel suite. St Etienne did not qualify on any of those counts, but even in much more salubrious locations the economic recession has turned culinary ambition into a high-stakes gamble.

Mark Veyrat is one of the losers. He gained three stars at L'Auberge de l'Eridan on Lake Annecy, but was deleted from all the guides when he went bankrupt. "As soon as a diner unfurls his napkin at my table, it costs me 500 francs," he said. Veyrat, who boasts that he owes more than any chef in France, can still be found in his kitchens, but only thanks to a whip-round among his loyal staff. "I'm working for the banks," he sighs.

Alain Ducasse is the only living chef to hold six Michelin stars - three each for the Louis XV in Monaco and a country inn in Provence. He too admits that "a great deal has to do with having the right address", and has recently taken over an establishment in Paris, although he has little patience with chefs' complaints.

"Dining in a three-star restaurant is a few hours of escape," he says. "We live in turbulent times, and the customer doesn't want to be bothered with the problems of a cash-strapped cook."

As for the bemused Gagnaire, he concludes: "It's an emotional business, but we must never lose our sense of humour."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future