For years, the talented Parisian chef Guy Savoy had struggled to get a third star in the Michelin Guide, and when he -- along with two other chefs -- finally reached the pinnacle of gastronomic distinction in France yesterday, he broke down and cried.
It was 9:50 a.m. on Feb. 12 when Derek Brown, the new English editor in chief of Michelin's Le Guide Rouge for France, called the chef at his self-named restaurant. As Brown introduced himself, Savoy cut him short. "I know who you are," the chef said.
"In 10 minutes, we are sending out a press release, and I wanted to alert you in advance. You have received three stars," Brown told Savoy, according to the chef.
"I was totally shocked. … I was very moved," said Savoy, 48. "I realized how much I had wanted it. I saw tears in the eyes of people in my team. I cried. It was brutal because, you know, I didn't expect it would be announced yesterday."
The guide traditionally releases its results on March 1, but this year, Michelin jumped the gun, giving out the results two weeks early because it wanted "to cut short the rumors" about its selection and demotion of restaurants in France, according to a press release.
Gossip always precedes the guide's annual release, but the rumors were unusually strong this year as the French speculated that wild changes would be announced in the 2002 Red Guide, which marked the first full year of Brown's editorship. The Englishman's appointment in January 2001 to head the French institution had caused widespread surprise in France.
In fact, Michelin's surprises this year were less dramatic than in 2001, when the guide took away famed chef Alain Ducasse's six-star crown, demoting his Louis XV in Monaco to two stars. It handed the rare distinction of having two three-star restaurants to Marc Veyrat, giving him a third star at La Ferme de Mon Père in Megève.
In the 2002 guide, two other restaurants besides Guy Savoy have been promoted to the highest level. Ledoyen, also in Paris, was upgraded on the strength of its chef, Christian Le Squer, who joined the restaurant in 1998 and impressed Michelin inspectors with menus using products from his native Brittany.
L'Arnsbourg, about 40 miles from Strasbourg in the town of Untermuhlthal, gained a third star for chef Jean-Georges Klein's "remarkable, imaginative cuisine," according to the guide, which calls the restaurant a "gastronomic jewel in the heart of the Vosges forest."
While Savoy and others honored by Michelin were celebrating, Emile Jung, the chef-owner of Au Crocodile in Strasbourg, was mourning the loss of its third star, which the 30-year-old restaurant has had since 1989. (Jung's passion for wine has also earned his restaurant a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list since 1993.)
In a defiant press release, Jung said, "Even at 30 years old, the Crocodile has all its teeth. It continues to bite into the passion of gastronomy." But in a tacit acknowledgement of Michelin's mighty role as an arbiter of French gastronomy, he added: "Nobody can measure the shock that strikes my wife and myself, and our entire team. No word can calm the pain that bites at our hearts and tear at our spirits."
In the other categories, seven restaurants went from one to two stars -- including L'Auberge de l'Ile in Lyon and Le Moulin de Mougins in Provence -- while two restaurants were demoted from two stars to one.
The biggest changes took place in the one-star category: 38 restaurants earned the designation, including Plaisance in St.-Emilion, Stéphane Derbord in Dijon and Haut Ribeaupierre in the Alsace town of Ribeauvillé. Twenty-two restaurants lost their one star, including Didier Gélineau in Bordeaux and Au Trou Gascon in Paris.
The upgrade to a third star may carry more prestige than financial consequences for the already successful Savoy, which is among Parisians' favorite restaurants. Wine Specator executive editor Thomas Matthews rated it among Paris' 15 top restaurants in the Oct. 15, 1998, issue, praising its food and ambiance, which he described as sophisticated without being stiff, with food that was neither clichéd nor contrived.
The house is regularly full at lunch and dinner, and Savoy expects no windfall from the new status. The 60-seat restaurant, which is near the Arc de Triomphe, but tucked away from the bustle of the Champs-Elysées at 18 Rue Troyon, served 26,000 diners last year and reported $5 million in gross revenues. The average tab amounts to about $212 per person, including wine, said the chef. The restaurant stocks about 10,000 bottles, with 500 selections on the list.
Savoy learned the joys of eating and the rigor of cooking from his mother, who was the chef of a country inn when he was a kid. "She cooked omelettes, coq au vin, snails, simple things, but I learned to appreciate the pleasure of the table," he said.
He apprenticed in three-star restaurants and trained with the Troisgros brothers in Roanne. "Living in a three-star environment became a natural thing, but getting there was much harder than I thought," he said.
For 16 years, Savoy said, he lived as if March 1 were judgment day. Ever since Michelin had given him two stars in 1985, he had swallowed his pride and kept his hurt to himself when the guide passed him over yet again. "They have kept me waiting a long time. It feels like I've been through a marathon," said Savoy.
But he acknowledged that his restaurant may have risen in quality in the past couple of years, and that this may have convinced the notoriously closemouthed and secretive Michelin inspectors, who review restaurants anonymously.
"My team in the dining room and in the kitchen are more homogenous, and they understand better what I want. We have worked very hard on the ambiance in the restaurant and on more disciplined service. Maybe it [the third star] could have come earlier," he said of the honor, "but it is fantastic that it comes now after an evolution. There is no reason why we couldn't be better in two or three years."
After the news, Savoy opened Champagne but didn't have time to drink any. Shortly after Michelin's announcement, TV crews, reporters and photographers invaded the restaurant. "People called until 2 a.m. to congratulate us. It was like a sportsman becoming champion of France -- no make that, world champion."
Read more about the Michelin Guide:
Michelin Guide's New English Director Speaks Out
Michelin's New France Guide Gives Three Stars to Veyrat, Takes One From Ducasse
French Michelin Guide Hires English Director
Michelin Guide Crowns Another Three-Star Restaurant in Paris
New Michelin Guide Adds One New Three-Star Restaurant
Rating the Michelin Three-Star Restaurants