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Three Stars and a Kingdom?

A Star Can Make Them Happy, But Not Necessarily Wealthy

by André Gayot

Anne-Sophie Pic
Anne-Sophie Pic

Although the French are all ears for the many candidates for the Presidency of their Republic and passionate about the upcoming elections next March, the food establishment is abuzz with another question: who is in and who is out of the club of triple-starred ones as proclaimed by the undisclosed jury selected by the famous tire maker?

This year, five new members are admitted, among them a woman, which is not that common in a rather macho world: Anne-Sophie Pic from Maison Pic in Valence (near Lyon) is only the fourth French woman ever to be receive three stars. She is also the only female chef in Michelin's 2007 edition. The other lucky recipients are Jacques Lameloise at Lameloise in Chagny (Burgundy); and in Paris: Yannick Alléno at Le Meurice (Rising Chefs of France); Pascal Barbot (L'Astrance); and Frédéric Anton (Le Pré Catelan), while two others get an F and return to the lower grades: Both Alain Solivérès (Taillevent) and Philippe Legendre (Le Cinq) lost a star this year.

Yannick Alléno
Yannick Alléno

At the end of the day, will it really matter? It used to, but probably not as much today—not only because the world has changed and maybe France is no longer the culinary centre of universe, but also because there’s a silent but rising rebellion against the tire makers’ dictates—although the Michelin Guide’s boss was all smiles among a slew of über-chefs from all over at the late Bocuse’s birthday party when he turned 81 earlier this month.

But others still ponder over Bernard Loiseau’s death and still question whether his suicide was caused by the pressures exerted on him, the fear of the potential loss of a star. That would mean that maybe the stakes are too high, that not everyone can play that game and that the rules should be better defined. The so called "revelations" of a former inspector with allegations that all establishments were not visited every year, even if that was not clearly proven nor denied caused some interrogations. This is probably only bad-mouthing, trifle and negligible.

Reality is cruder: a star would in the past boost business by twenty percent. Not anymore. Explanation: it’s the economy, stupid! That was true also for Bernard Loiseau, who had invested left and right, above his reasonable capacities. Food writer Jean-Claude Ribaut explains: Remember what Alain Senderens of Lucas Carton did a couple years ago. Stating the amount of investment necessitated to reach and mostly to stay at the three-star level versus the monetary return, he and his accountants decided to write to Michelin: “Thank you, but no thank you. Keep your stars, I don’t want them.” (Senderens Renounces Michelin Laurels) He probably also had in mind that Pierre Gagnaire, who in Saint Etienne had bent backwards to get his stars, spent so much money in the wrong place at the wrong time to only succeed in going belly up. Fortunately, he was able to recover in Paris.

The other sad story is that of Marc Meneau at L’Espérance in Vézelay. When he lost his third star in 1999, he told us: “It’s like losing a child.” Meneau retrieved his three-star status in 2004, but that did not help much. He is now in bankruptcy, awaiting court decision.

Ferran Adrià
Ferran Adrià

The world has changed for sure. Ferran Adrià in Spain is a well-known cook promoting so-called molecular cuisine and doing his best to destroyor deconstruct if you preferthe product. Meanwhile, Philippe Rochat in Crissier near Lausanne does everything to preserve the quintessential nature of the ingredients. What do these two have in common and what can one, two, or three stars tell us about the value for our palates of such extremely opposite foods?

Whether we like it or not, the world is global. Tire manufacturing can adjust to these new borders or rather, lack of borders, with a little—or not so little—bit of “delocalization.”

It might very well be trickier for gastronomy. What does a star or the absence of a star mean for an arrow’s nest or a shark’s fin in our bowl?

And what about Senderens?

He is fine, thank you. He is now booked solid and has never made so much money. They were so vexed that despite his refusal to accept their stars, they gave him two of them, compliments of Michelin, no hard feelings.

(Updated: 09/08/10 NW)

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