Michelin Changes With the Times
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief
France's famed Michelin Guide is proving that an old dog can learn new tricks, and the surprises in its newly released 1998 edition reveal a great deal about the current state of French haute cuisine.
The Red Guide, as it is known because of its crimson cover, was first published in 1900. Aimed at owners of the newfangled automobiles, it listed garages throughout France where drivers could find repairs (and Michelin tires). As an added inducement, it indicated hotels and restaurants along the major highways. Gradually, the Guide has become the most powerful force in the French hospitality business, thanks to its comprehensiveness (the current edition lists 5,767 hotels and 3,885 restaurants) and its reputation for objectivity and incorruptibility in its ratings.
While readers still turn to the Guide to find places to stay and places to fix their cars, the restaurant ratings have become its most important component. These brief, cryptic listings, full of symbols but almost devoid of descriptive text, can make or break culinary reputations. Every chef dreams of earning that first star, for the validation and additional business it brings. The most ambitious spend years of toil and millions of dollars in the effort to win three stars, Michelin's highest rating. And when the new guide appears each year, changes in the three-star ratings are front-page news in France.
The 1998 Michelin Guide, released on March 2, sends a powerful message about the evolution of haute cuisine; it also testifies to a remarkable change in the guide itself.
This year, three restaurants were promoted from two stars to three, while none were demoted, raising the number of three-stars from 18 to 21, the largest group in years. However, the number of two-star establishments was unchanged (with four promotions and four demotions) and the number of one-stars actually declined by 16 to 405.
The big news was Michelin's change of heart regarding chef Alain Ducasse's restaurant Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, where "Mediterranean cooking" first hit the big time in France. After holding three stars for five years, it was demoted to two last year. Many people, including Ducasse himself, felt he was being punished by Michelin for hubris. In late 1996, Ducasse took over Joel Robuchon's three-star restaurant in Paris and vowed to become France's only six-star chef; the 1997 Guide conceded him three stars for the Paris operation, but denied him the six stars by stripping one from Louis XV. This year, as Paris retained all three stars, Ducasse finally achieved his goal.
While Michelin makes it a cardinal rule never to explain its decisions, Ducasse scoffed at the idea that Monte Carlo had declined, then improved. The almost inescapable conclusion is that Michelin had a change of heart and remedied its own injustice. If so, this represents an admirable self-correction, but raises questions about the overall reliability and consistency of the ratings that can only do long-term damage to the guide's reputation.
Another three-star promotion was also a kind of restitution. Pierre Gagnaire won three stars in 1993 for his bold, eclectic cuisine, but couldn't find customers in his provincial city and in 1996 closed his restaurant and voluntarily relinquished his stars. He reopened last year in Paris, where a more cosmopolitan clientele welcomed him with open arms, and Michelin awarded him a quick two stars. This year, he too regained his third star. It's a welcome vindication for Gagnaire, no doubt, but also possibly hints at a favoritism that must be disturbing to other chefs who have been stuck at the two-star level for many years.
The final three-star promotion was for the Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, a city in southern France, near the Mediterranean, far from the traditional centers of haute cuisine. The chef/owners are twin brothers, Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, 33 years old. They, like Gagnaire, represent a new way of cooking in France.
The brothers grew up in Montpellier and started preparing the family's meals at 14, when their mother fell ill (according to an essay they wrote for a 1996 book, "Chefs for Tomorrow," which spotlighted 50 French chefs under 35 years of age). They watched cooking shows on television, explored the market, and both decided to attend the cooking/hotel school in Montpellier. After graduation, they each apprenticed separately with the young lions of French cuisine--Gagnaire, Michel Bras, Michel Trama and Alain Chapel. They opened Le Jardin des Sens in 1988, won their first star in 1990 and their second in 1992. This year they became, according to my reckoning, the youngest three-star chefs in France.
Le Jardin des Sens is unconventional in many ways, from its decor of raw concrete and abstract art to its spice-intensive, Mediterranean-accented cuisine. They have no patience with conventional haute cuisine and no allegiance to the past.
"French cuisine is in danger," they wrote in their essay. "It's regressing at the very moment when Spanish and Italian cooking are in full development... In France, too many chefs are contemplating their navels. We need to avoid the derivative, the endless pursuit of customers and investments. We have to focus on the food, and base our cooking on the very best raw ingredients."
I have not been to any of these restaurants, though I have enjoyed Ducasse's food in Paris and visited Gagnaire in St.-Etienne before he closed. The reports I have received about all three are positive, and I have no reason to doubt their quality, or their worthiness of winning three stars. But if once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a trend, this trio of 1998 promotions might have something to say, about Michelin in particular or French cooking in general.
What does it mean when young mavericks earn Michelin's highest honor, while veterans with long reputations, deep cellars and luxurious dining rooms don't make the grade? What does it say about the value of classic haute cuisine--those long-simmered sauces, those complex assemblies of ingredients, those deeply traditional recipes--when the three chefs promoted to three stars all, in one form or another, disavow the past in favor of lighter, bolder, more personal approaches to cooking?
Ducasse, for one, is excited by the news. "This year, Michelin's choices are extremely heterogeneous," he told me. "It proves they--along with French cuisine as a whole--are ready to face the new century."
But more conservative voices may have doubts. Michelin itself has long been considered a conservative influence--reluctant to drop old favorites, slow to promote new stars. The guide's increasingly warm embrace of novelty and experimentation has been in evidence for several years now, but never to this extent. If the 1998 Red Guide signals that one of the most powerful defenders of the classical tradition of French cuisine has gone over to the multicultural side, then the days of coq au vin and boeuf bourgignonne may be limited, at least in the most ambitious of the country's restaurants. That may be good news for the French, longing for freedom and progress. But it may represent an irrecoverable loss for those of us who think that the grand tradition of haute cuisine is one of the cultural wonders of the world.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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