Three Michelin stars for Sarkozy's favourite chef is a fix, says critic

John Lichfield
Monday 02 March 2009 01:00
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President Nicolas Sarkozy's favourite chef will be the only new winner of the world's greatest culinary accolade when the Michelin guide to France publishes its 100th edition today. Eric Fréchon, chef of the Hotel Bristol – 200 metres from the Elysée Palace and a frequent haunt of M. Sarkozy and Carla Bruni – will be promoted to three stars in the 2009 edition of the most prestigious of all restaurant guides.

The British chef, Gordon Ramsay, will jump straight to two stars for his new restaurant in Versailles but there will be – somewhat unusually – only one new, three-star chef in the 100th version of the Big Red Book.

Both Fréchon and Ramsay's promotions by Michelin are controversial in France. Fréchon, 45, has been admired for years as a classic French chef in the Norman tradition. However his singling out for three-star promotion is alleged by France's most feared restaurant critic, François Simon, to be linked to President Sarkozy's patronage as much as the quality of his cooking.

"No one will ask whether this promotion is deserved or not," Simon said. "It is all part of Michelin's clever marketing, because this is the President's favourite place to eat."

Simon has also repeated his earlier criticism of Ramsay's restaurant at the Hotel Trianon Palace in Versailles, which opened almost a year ago. He says that any real food lover should object to the award of two stars to the "stereotyped" and "déjà vu" cuisine of the Trianon Palace. The quality of Ramsay's food, he says, is "not bad at all" but nothing original.

The 100th edition of the guide arrives at a time when the culture of haute-cuisine and the exalted, and costly ambience, of two and three-star restaurants is being severely challenged. Two French three-star chefs have decided to "hand back their stars" this year, partly because of the financial and mental pressure of maintaining restaurants at the demanding and fussy level of service required by the inspectors of the Michelin Guide.

Simon – the outspoken and much feared restaurant critic of Le Figaro – is the leader of a group of young, French gastronomes who accuse the guide of being stuck in the past. Even before the economic challenges brought by the recession, they say, the elaborate, "three-star" culture had ceased to be the real creative edge of French cuisine. They accuse the guide of ignoring, or underplaying, a movement towards "bistronomie": excellent, simple, original food at more affordable prices.

"The [Michelin Guide] has yielded to the sirens of marketing," Simon said. "It represents a 'gastronomically correct' culture which ignores 'bistronomie' and rejects foreign styles of cooking. It has missed out on a epoch which has totally changed in the past 10 years."

The criticism is rejected by the director of the guide, Jean-Luc Naret, who will host a party today for more than 60 three-star chefs from all over the world to celebrate the 100th edition of the French Michelin guide. (The book was first published in 1898 but several years were missed in wartime.)

Naret points out that the guide also contains hundreds of cheaper, simpler restaurants, including those awarded a "bib" for their outstanding quality and value. The guide has also branched out in recent years with editions for New York, Japan and, most recently, Hong Kong and Macao, which are not, he insists, preoccupied by the French styles of cooking.

Simon and others complain, nonetheless, that the Michelin star obsession has led to a confusion of gastronomic quality with fussiness and price. Most of the three-star restaurants in Paris, they point out, are in luxury hotels, which subsidise the restaurants for reasons of prestige.

The elevation of Fréchon's restaurant at the Hotel Bristol – two stars until now – extends that pattern. The hotel, on the Rue Faubourg Saint Honore, in the heart of the haute-couture fashion district, is a favourite with Hollywood movie stars, Arab princes – and M. Sarkozy.

The President has invited a procession of foreign visitors to eat with him at the Bristol – sometimes insisting that they walk the 200 metres from the presidential residence.

Fréchon is known for his classic, Norman-style cuisine, based heavily on dairy produce and seafood. In a recent interview, he said that he was not obsessed with winning his third star. "We give the best of ourselves every day," he said. "If we get a third star, it will be a consecration for the whole team. It will show that we are working well, inventing, creating, imagining things which please people. But I do not think [of the third star] every morning while shaving."

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