Chefs shiver as Michelin turns 100

28th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

The latest edition of the renowned 'Red Book' will be published on Monday, promising to promote some up-and-coming cooks to global celebrity and to prick the egos of some established masters of the restaurant universe.

Paris -- It's the longest weekend of the year for the world's top chefs as they await the make-or-break verdicts of the Michelin Guide's feared team of restaurant inspectors.

The 100th edition of the renowned Red Book will be published on Monday, promising to promote some up-and-coming cooks to global celebrity and to prick the egos of some established masters of the restaurant universe.

Only 1,973 restaurants in the world have a Michelin star rating and for chefs struggling to market high-end cuisine in this new era of austerity, a good write-up could make all the difference.

"You become part of an elite," said Philippe Etchebest, chef at the two-star Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint Emilion, southwest France. "People come specially to try the chef's cuisine. Sometimes they've crossed France or even the Atlantic just to eat at your table."

Cedric Marechal, manager of Ze Kitchen Galerie on Paris's Left Bank, says the media frenzy surrounding the annual results is a restaurant promoter's dream. "Our first star saw bookings up 23 percent," he said.

The buzz surrounding the world's number-one food guide and the knock-on publicity for the publishers' green-cover country and tourism guides, has kept the Michelin brand on top for more than a century.

Altogether, 1.2 million copies of the guides are sold every year, making them number one globally and in most of the 23 countries they cover.

Of course, as anyone who has worked hotel kitchens could tell you, cuisine is a competitive business, and Michelin's secretive 90-strong team of inspectors has earned its own battalion of critics.

"They sold out to marketing," said Le Figaro's respected restaurant critic Francois Simon. "It reflects a gastronomically correct hierarchy that ignores bistro culture and sidelines international cuisine."

Michelin's competitors claim the rigid star system -- only 72 restaurants in the world have three stars -- rewards only French-style palatial restaurants with starched white table linen and complex rituals.

In doing so, they argue, the guide ignores the pleasures of quality food in neighbourhood bistros and the rich culinary traditions beyond Europe.

Michelin's editor-in-chief Jean-Luc Narest dismissed such talk with a wave of his champagne glass as he briefed AFP on the new guide over lunch in two-star chef Jean-Pierre Vigato's elegant Apicius restaurant.

"If you found me a French chef who does food worth three stars in a simple bistro, I'd give him them," he declared, supping truffle soup through a straw from a porcelain flask cast in the shape of a hazelnut.

As proof of Michelin's egalitarian credentials, Narest cites the example of his pride and joy, the firm's two-year-old Japanese guide, which accords star status to some very simple, but world-beating, basement sushi joints.

To those who say French-trained inspectors are not qualified to judge Asian cuisine, he retorts that nine out of 10 of his Tokyo team are now Japanese.

Meanwhile, in former food wasteland Britain, innovative chefs like Heston Blumenthal have built global reputations after starting "gastro pubs" that have no reason to envy France's more refined culinary temples.

For Narest, Michelin's dominant position does not handicap the guide by putting it out of touch with grass-roots dining. Rather, the income it generates allows it to employ the most rigorous inspection methods.

Worldwide, 90 full-time inspectors travel alone, eating in two restaurants per day and never staying in the same hotel twice. Every six months they switch regions to preserve their anonymity.

It's an expensive and painstaking process, but Narest believes it is the source of the guide's ongoing credibility and that, in turn, is why chefs and food fans alike will rush out to get their copies come Monday's launch.

Dave Clark and Dominique Ageorges/AFP/Expatica

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