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."
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