Two-centre chef loses star billing

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His food may be superlative, but hubris has a habit of leaving a sour taste in the mouth. Put another way, no one takes the Michelin Guide for granted.

Reading between the lines, and the crossed forks and knives, this was the message of the 1997 edition of the gastronomic bible published yesterday. To the surprise of some, the guide denied an almost unheard of six stars to Alain Ducasse, the acknowledged superstar of French haute cuisine.

Mr Ducasse had been expected by many food critics to retain the three stars he had earned for his Louis XV restaurant in Monaco and to win another three for his new 1,500 francs-a-head (pounds 170) restaurant in Paris. The Michelin Guide, declining as ever to explain or justify its decisions, gave him three for Paris (the only new three-star restaurant of the year) but removed one star from Monaco.

A press release reminded chefs that they were "not the owners of their stars, even if they were double or triple". This was taken as a not entirely gentle put down for a man accepted as the best chef of his generation. The guide was, in effect, saying: "We don't believe you can cook in two kitchens 500 miles apart." Apart from a brief period in the 1930s, no chef has ever possessed six Michelin stars; Mr Ducasse is the only chef in the world to have five.

This was small compensation for Mr Ducasse, a man with a profile in France equivalent to that of a film star or racing driver. He complained yesterday that Michelin's decision was a "total injustice", not just to him, but to his team at the Louis XV which had, he said, maintained exactly the same standards as before.

The doyen of French food critics, Gilles Pudlowski, had forecast, however, that the Michelin Guide would not allow him to get away with it. "His Dr Jekyll and Mr Ducasse act does not fool me," he wrote. "He can't be a genius in two places at once."

In the 1997 guide, France has 18 three-star restaurants, 74 with two stars and 423 with one star, a slight reduction on 1996. For the first time, the Guide is on the World Wide Web (