Why Don’t the French Cook Like They Used To?

How the Michelin guide crippled France’s restaurants.

In his new book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger examines the startling decline of French cuisine over the past few decades, explaining how a country that turned eating and drinking into an art form has lost its touch for cheese, wine, food, and fine dining. In today’s excerpt, the first of two, Steinberger explains how the Michelin guide, which once celebrated the pinnacles of French culinary achievement, became a “millstone” around the necks of the nation’s chefs. Tomorrow’s excerpt explains how McDonald’s conquered France—its second-biggest market in the world.

“We have to cut it. We have to kill it. We have to burn it.” It was nine o’clock on a warm, hazy morning in May 2007. Paris was still half-asleep, the café was a picture of tranquility, and Luc Dubanchet was issuing a battle cry. The bellicose talk was directed not at another nation, nor at international terrorists, but at an enemy that he seemed to believe was nearly as dangerous: the Michelin Guide.

Dubanchet was the founder of a publication called Omnivore that sought to call attention to the most innovative French chefs. To hear him tell it, the Michelin Guide had become a dead weight for French cuisine. It discouraged creativity, demanded a level of opulence that made fine dining appealing and accessible only to rich fogeys, and was unacceptably opaque about its reviewing methods. Dubanchet said that he had started Omnivore in part to combat “the Michelin way of thinking about food, and the Michelin way of building restaurants, and the Michelin way of not explaining.” It wouldn’t be easy, he acknowledged; he and his colleagues were up against a pillar of French cultural life. But as the slight, bespectacled thirty-five-year-old sipped his coffee and looked out across the Place de la Bastille, cradle of an earlier revolution, he expressed steely confidence. “I want war,” he said. “I want to tear down the Michelin system.”

Even for an American well versed in the passions and peculiarities of French food culture, it was hard not to burst out laughing as Dubanchet enumerated the reasons why Fortress Michelin needed to be stormed. This was, after all, a restaurant guide he was talking about—a powerful one, to be sure, but a restaurant guide all the same. But while Dubanchet’s language may have been overwrought, he wasn’t exaggerating Michelin’s clout, nor was he alone in believing that the Guide had become a malignant influence. Indeed, Michelin was then facing perhaps its most serious backlash ever, one that involved not just journalists but also some of the world’s most esteemed chefs—a few of whom had even taken the radical step of handing back their Michelin stars.

Almost from the moment it began dishing out stars, in 1926, Michelin had been regarded as the Holy Writ of French gastronomy. It eventually became rare to set foot in a French car that didn’t have a well-worn copy of the famous red book in its glove compartment or side pocket, and the annual publication of the Guide, with its promotions and demotions, was the Oscars of the French eating class.

Likewise, chefs had long been obsessed with satisfying one guest above all others: the anonymous Michelin inspector. If they could send him home happy, success was assured. For French chefs, Michelin wasn’t merely a source of approbation; it defined what it meant to eat well in France. In this sense, it was as much a beacon for haute cuisine’s practitioners as it was for its consumers. The chef Alain Chapel once described the Guide Rouge as “a light to guide us.”

By outward appearances, the Guide was a dim, almost imperceptible, light, especially to modern diners accustomed to having exhaustive restaurant reviews available at the click of a mouse. In more than two thousand tissue-thin pages, it contained no actual descriptions of meals or settings. It provided only restaurant details—locations, contact information, prices, specialties of the house, amenities, days closed—some of which were conveyed via symbols rather than words. Alongside these was the main attraction, the ratings, expressed through the Guide’s most important symbol of all: a small star. It would be hard to think of a more potent emblem in any realm of human activity. A single star could validate a career and put an entire village on the map. Two stars brought regional fame, sometimes even national recognition. Three stars, the highest and rarest classification (the most restaurants in France ever to hold three stars at any one time was twenty-seven), conferred admission into the pantheon of France’s greatest chefs. But how to win Michelin’s benediction was far from clear. What distinguished a three-star restaurant from a two-star? Chefs were always welcome to visit the Guide’s offices on the Avenue de Breteuil in Paris to discuss their status, and many availed themselves of the opportunity. However, the answers they received were vague. Michelin said its ratings were based solely on the quality of the food and had nothing to do with the setting; that three- and two-star restaurants received more scrutiny than other establishments; and that its inspectors dined incognito and paid on the company tab. But Michelin wouldn’t reveal the number of inspectors it employed, never explained its decisions, and appeared to take pleasure in being evasive.

So chefs were left to draft their own road maps to the Promised Land, and many ultimately concluded that, contrary to Michelin’s mantra, the difference between a two-star rating and a three-star rating had little to do with the cooking and a lot to do with the ambience. The chef  Paul Bocuse supposedly won his third star after prettifying his bathrooms, and the lesson drawn by other chefs and restaurateurs was that a baronial atmosphere was a prerequisite to earning Michelin’s ultimate accolade. In 2007 a trio of European economists—Olivier Gergaud, Linett Montaño Guzmán, and Vincenzo Verardi—published a study showing that Michelin was indeed influenced by the décor and even by the quality of the neighborhoods in which restaurants were located. Their regression analysis led them to conclude that the Guide “overcompensates chefs who invest heavily in their setting (and location) and undercompensates those who strictly focus on cuisine quality.” Several generations of French chefs could have told them that, without having to resort to the fancy math.

Then, in 1999, the unthinkable happened: A pair of three-star recipients in London, Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, announced (separately) that they were handing back their étoiles and taking their restaurants in new directions. Explaining his decision, Ladenis suggested that Michelin had fallen out of step with what diners wanted. “I have now reached the age of sixty-five and like an old elephant with its nose in the air, my sense of smell tells me that fashion, people, expectations, and restaurants are undergoing convulsive changes,” he said. In his view, traditional three-star dining had become passé. Michelin, clearly stung, responded by insisting that chefs could not actually give back their stars; only the Guide itself had the power to withdraw them. But the legalistic face-saving did nothing to change the story line.

A three-star rating had always been considered tantamount to a winning lottery ticket, but it was now increasingly seen as both a creative and financial burden. In 1996, three years before Ladenis and White told the Guide to go jump in the Thames, Pierre Gagnaire’s three-star restaurant in Saint-étienne went bankrupt, a first in the annals of Michelin. For Gagnaire, the problem was location: The restaurant was situated in an industrial city that didn’t attract many tourists and where the locals didn’t much appreciate his eclectic cooking—or the exorbitant prices. Gagnaire’s demise might have been dismissed as a product of uniquely bad circumstances had it not been for the financial woes that struck another three-star chef, Marc Veyrat, that same year. Nine million dollars in debt after extensive renovations (including gold-plated bathroom fixtures), Veyrat was forced to close his restaurant for a month when he couldn’t repay the loans. The banks gave him a reprieve that allowed the restaurant, located in the Alps, to reopen, but Veyrat’s near-death experience underscored the point: Outside of Paris, at least, a three-star rating had become as much a millstone as a money spinner.

In September 2007 I joined Jean-Luc Naret, Michelin’s editorial director and the man charged with reinvigorating the brand, for lunch in Paris. His choice of restaurants was intriguing: Carré des Feuillants, located off the Place Vendôme, was a perennial two-star that many people felt had been unjustly denied a promotion. In picking Carré des Feuillants, was Naret subtly indicating that a third star was at last in chef Alain Dutournier’s grasp? I walked into the restaurant at twelve-thirty precisely. The receptionist greeted me and asked for the name of the reservation. I suddenly recalled with some alarm that Naret’s assistant hadn’t told me the alias he’d be using. I wasn’t quite sure of the name, I told her. She asked if I knew the company that had booked the table. I pretended to draw a blank on that, too. Wearing a look of polite bafflement, she invited me to take a seat in the lobby. Then Naret came breezing through the front door. Although it was a sunny, mid-September afternoon with temperatures well into the sixties, he had a bright purple scarf wrapped rather dramatically around his neck—not exactly the look of a man moving about town incognito. In fact, he had booked under his own name. As we were shown to our table, Naret reminded me that he was not an inspector and thus had no need for pseudonyms. It was better if he reserved as Jean-Luc Naret, he said. Michelin took a dim view of restaurants that lavished preferential treatment on certain guests, and what better way of finding that out than having the Guide’s editorial director in the dining room? He sometimes had inspectors visit restaurants at the same time he was there so that he could compare notes with them later and determine if favors had been dispensed. “So there might be an inspector here right now?” I asked. “Possibly,” he said with a cagey grin.

The Carré des Feuillants staff didn’t fawn over Naret. They were obsequious, of course (it came with the territory), but no more so than they were with the other diners. Dutournier also played it cool: Rather than rushing out to greet Naret, he waited perhaps half an hour to come into the dining room, and he stopped to exchange pleasantries with a few other guests before sauntering over to see us. But once at our table, the stocky, gray-haired chef was a picture of timidity: He seemed to bow as he shook Naret’s hand, meekly said “Hello,” and then stood there wearing a nervous, expectant smile. His demeanor was almost supplicatory, which was jarring to see in this normally cocksure chef, a frequent and animated presence on French television. Michelin’s influence might have been waning, but it evidently still had the power to make famous French chefs quake in their clogs. For his part, Naret was curt: He thanked Dutournier for the greeting, said he looked well, and then flashed him a look that seemed to say “dismissed.” Dutournier quickly wished us a bon appétit and retreated to the kitchen. I couldn’t decide if Naret was being scrupulously professional and avoiding small talk or smelled weakness and was being gratuitously cruel.

Naret ordered oysters in seawater gelée, a specialty of the house, for his first course and roasted turbot for his main. Although he wasn’t an inspector, he obviously knew the criteria that Michelin used to assess the quality of meals, and as our desserts were being cleared, I asked Naret to cough up some insights into what we’d eaten. I asked if he thought the quality of the lunch was consistent with the restaurant’s two-star rating, to which I received a one-word reply: “Yes.” He then told me that he would not be returning to Carré des Feuillants for a while: This had been his fifth visit to the restaurant in 2007, and he was worried that perhaps the long-suffering Dutournier was getting the wrong idea. “You mean he might think you’re considering him for a third star?” I asked. “Exactly.”