The Marvelous Michelin Man

Don’t blame the top restaurant guide for a French chef’s suicide.

Loiseau: Not felled by a falling star
Loiseau: Not felled by a falling star

Reacting to the suicide last Monday of fellow culinary kingpin Bernard Loiseau, Paul Bocuse and other top French chefs skipped the shock and went straight for the scapegoating, blaming his death on merciless, mercurial critics. They claimed Loiseau’s recent demotion by GaultMillau, a popular restaurant guide, led him to make a date with the business end of his rifle. But the principal object of their ire was the all-powerful Michelin Guide, whose coveted stars can make or break a restaurant (the loss of a star will generally cut a restaurant’s turnover by at least 25 percent). They said the pressure of trying to perennially please Michelin drove Loiseau, one of just 25 three-star recipients in France (Bocuse is another), to the brink. They also blame Michelin for making haute cuisine an impossibly difficult business. Talk about biting the hand …

Michelin exercises the influence it does because restaurants matter in France and because the guide, with its army of anonymous inspectors, has proven itself over the years to be a rigorous, honest, and generally excellent judge of them. The “Red Bible,” as it is known, is a symbol of French culinary achievement and a guarantor of French culinary standards. It has long been a springboard to fame and riches for chefs, and the importance they attach to Michelin stars has only magnified the guide’s importance to restaurant-goers. Nowadays, when top-flight cooking is increasingly homogenized and the French no longer boast a monopoly on gastronomic genius, what mystique French fare and French chefs retain is chiefly attributable to Michelin.

It’s not a little ironic that Bocuse has been doing most of the finger-pointing during the past week, since no one has prospered more than he from Michelin’s imprimatur. Initially awarded three stars in 1965, he was the first chef to use the guide’s stamp of approval as a ticket to universal celebrity, becoming a globe-trotting icon with lucrative consulting and endorsement deals. The fact that Bocuse is now 77 years old and some three decades removed from his last big flash of inspiration at the stove—he was one of the godfathers of nouvelle cuisine—yet still holds three stars and is still the world’s most famous chef is emblematic of Michelin’s ability to catapult chefs to stardom and keep them there.

Loiseau’s life ambition was to mimic the success Bocuse has enjoyed. He once said he wanted to be to gastronomy what Pelé was to soccer. When his obsessive pursuit of a third star—the subject of a superb book by American journalist William Echikson titled Burgundy Stars (Loiseau’s restaurant, La Côte d’Or, is located in Saulieu, a somniferous town at the northern tip of Burgundy)—finally bore fruit, Loiseau used the critical acclaim to assemble a mini-empire. There were TV shows, cookbooks, a line of frozen foods, a boutique, a handful of bistros in Paris, even a listing on the Paris stock market. Some of the postmortems have suggested that Loiseau did all this moonlighting out of necessity—to keep La Côte d’Or afloat. In fact, he did it chiefly because he craved the spotlight.

True, operating the restaurant was a huge and growing financial burden, and at the time of his death Loiseau was sinking into debt. Bocuse and other Michelin-bashers have blamed his money woes, and those of other three-star chefs, on the guide, which they contend requires budget-busting levels of opulence.

Michelin does have high expectations, but so do its readers. When you go to a three-star, you generally expect an obscenely lavish, memorable meal—pristine ingredients, flawless execution, impeccable service, baronial surroundings. Putting on that kind of show requires a serious investment these days, and not just because foie gras and caviar don’t come cheap. French labor laws—relatively high wages, generous benefits, the 35-hour work week—have pushed operating expenses for three-star establishments into the stratosphere.

The restaurants now find themselves caught in a vicious cycle: They pass on the added costs by raising prices—the going rate for lunch or dinner at a three-star is around $200 a head these days (20 percent of the tab is thanks to that other business-deflating institution, the value-added tax)—and as the prices increase, so do the expectations.

Several marquee chefs, including Alain Ducasse, are now working out of hotels because they have concluded that running a top-notch stand-alone establishment is no longer feasible or desirable. The biggest culinary star in France at the moment, Marc Veyrat, nearly went bankrupt several years ago; a little mercy from his bankers kept the lights on.

Loiseau had those same financial difficulties, but unlike most of his peers, it seems he had no outside backing (save for the investors in his stock). Moreover, three-stars now cater largely to foreigners, and Saulieu is not exactly a hot destination. Had La Côte d’Or been in, say, Dijon, things might have turned out differently.

But Loiseau wanted Michelin’s approbation and all the perks it conferred, and he wanted these things entirely on his terms. While his death is both a personal tragedy and a cultural one, Michelin didn’t kill him; he killed himself.

If anything, Michelin appears to have cut him some slack in recent years. It is common knowledge that the guide is slow to demote underperforming three-stars. Loiseau’s contribution to the French canon was cuisine a l’eau, in which sauces are fashioned from water, natural juices, and oils, with less emphasis on butter and cream. But he coined this approach ages ago. The first and only time I ate at La Côte d’Or, three years ago, the food was tired and so was he. This was the prevailing view at the time. Nonetheless, it was apparently only recently that Loiseau was warned by Michelin that he was in danger of a downgrade.

Given the kind of power that the guide wields, its reluctance to act in haste is generally a good thing. So, too, its unwillingness to succumb to the neophilia that afflicts most restaurant critics. Obviously, if Michelin was consistently rewarding mediocrity and ignoring culinary innovators, it wouldn’t have the influence it does. In fact, though, it seems to strike a superb balance between the old and the new, keeping haute cuisine firmly rooted in the past while also rewarding progress. Gastronomic temples like Taillevent receive three stars, but so do postmodern virtuosos like Veyrat (among other things, Veyrat has introduced heroin chic to the Gallic dining room: Part of his shtick is having waiters inject sauces into dishes via syringes).

Loiseau’s suicide and the controversy surrounding it have led some commentators here to conclude that the American restaurant scene is infinitely better off for not being subjected to Michelin’s scrutiny. (Michelin publishes restaurant guides to 17 European countries besides France but has never had a U.S. edition.) That’s like saying American athletes would be better off if they didn’t compete in the Olympics. Top American chefs have always measured themselves against the three-stars, and it has become an article of faith in recent years among cooks and critics alike that restaurants like French Laundry, Daniel, Le Bernardin, and Charlie Trotter’s are now just as good as the choicest tables in Europe. It would be great if Michelin put that proposition to the test by publishing an American guide.

If a U.S. restaurant were awarded three stars, the effect would be electrifying. As gastronomy goes, it would truly mark the emergence of a new world order (not only that: half the put-downs in the typical Frenchman’s repertoire of anti-Americanisms would instantly be rendered invalid). If, on the other hand, expectations were dashed and no American restaurant received the ultimate accolade, it would be a good reality check and a source of motivation. The rigorous scrutiny would certainly be a change of pace: Chefs here have generally had it a pretty easy with the critics and have come to expect softball coverage (witness the bellyaching when William Grimes became restaurant critic of the New York Times and tried to toughen its grading). Michelin would thrust our top chefs into competition with the likes of Veyrat. It would be edifying and not a little entertaining to see if they could take the heat.