Michelin stars for celebrity chefs bring French to the boil

John Lichfield
Saturday 08 February 2003 01:00
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The jet-set chef Alain Ducasse becomes the only chef in the world with six Michelin stars – two sets of three – in the 2003 edition of the French gastronomic bible, the Red Guide, later this month.

The new guide also awards two stars to a controversial, rising celebrity of French gastronomy, a young woman called Hélène Darroze, who is a former pupil of M. Ducasse.

Both decisions were criticised yesterday by traditionalist food critics in France as an example of how the Michelin Guide – now run by a Briton, Derek Brown – has started to bow to the international craze for celebrity chefs.

The Michelin organisation rejects this allegation and insists that the guide is shaped only by the quality of a chef's cooking, not the piquancy of his, or her, media profile.

Few books can stir the imagination, and indignation, of the French like the Big Red Book, published annually by Europe's largest tyre company. The 2003 Guide Rouge for France will not reach bookshops for three weeks but it is already mixing a bouillabaisse of speculation, back-biting and second-guessing worthy of Oscar week in Hollywood.

Who will be up and who will be down? Who can really cook and who is just trendy? To cut short the speculation, Mr Brown, the head of the guide, took the unusual step of releasing the main changes in advance yesterday.

M. Ducasse keep his maximum three stars for his restaurant, "Alain Ducasse", just off the Champs Elysées in Paris, and regains the third star removed a couple of years ago from his restaurant in the Louis XV hotel in Monaco. It was said then that the guide took away his third Monaco star under pressure from other leading chefs jealous of M. Ducasse's constellation of an unprecedented six stars.

The only other new three-star chef is Philippe Legendre, of the "Cinq" restaurant in the Hotel George V in Paris, which has been restored to its former eminence after becoming a posh package-tour hotel when it was part of the British-owned Forte group in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The rising star of this year's guide is, controversially, Hélène Darroze, one of the few women to break the male grip on celebrity chefdom in France in recent years. Mme Darroze, who has a chic restaurant with a trendy young clientele – menus from €65 (£43) – and a cheaper brasserie on the Rue d'Assas, in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, is promoted from one star to two.

The fiercely traditionalist food critic of Le Figaro, François Simon, complained that her promotion – and the restoration of M. Ducasse's six stars – proved that the Michelin guide was now "soaked in marketing". Mme Darroze is a favourite of French women's magazines, including Le Figaro's own Madame Figaro.

M. Simon said: "Chefs are now being rewarded for the publicity that they will bring to the guide, rather than their intrinsic value. [Mme Darroze] is not without talent but, honestly, one star was already a lot and two stars is quietly surreal." He suggested that she – and other media-genic chefs – were being rewarded for their profile rather than their cooking, while "plodding chefs with black teeth but flagrant talent" were being ignored.

Other French food critics say the Michelin guide is obsessed by the media ballyhoo over its stars, rather than its original, century-old mission to identify good restaurants and hotels at all prices.

Michelin officials, including Mr Brown, say this is rubbish: it is the media that is obsessed with the stars. The guide, they insist, remains fiercely independent and contains hundreds of entries for good, modestly priced restaurants, as well as the starred ones.

In this year's edition, there will be 25 "three-star" restaurants in France, the highest number for many years, compared with only two in the Michelin guide to Britain.

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