Top chefs take note: Michelin says cuts needed

Remy de la Mauviniere, The Associated Press

Remy de la Mauviniere, The Associated Press

By Emma Vandore

PARIS – The coveted Michelin stars can make or break a restaurant. But so can an economic crisis.

“It’s not caviar every day,” the Michelin guide’s director said Monday as he urged France’s great chefs to invent new ways of keeping customers.

Some of the world’s best restaurants are losing business, particularly from corporate clients, and are having to offer cheaper menus, even at the top end, Jean-Luc Naret told The Associated Press.

The Michelin guide celebrated its 100th French edition Monday.

Naret said some restaurants will be forced to explore “new concepts,” pointing to New York’s upscale Jean Georges restaurant, which is offering 3-star lunchtime cuisine for $28.

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“Those who are too expensive will be forced to reinvent themselves,” he said.

However, crisis wasn’t on the menu Monday for Le Bristol, where Michelin elevated chef Eric Frechon’s restaurant to 3-star status – the only one to receive such an upgrade in this year’s guide.

Frechon said his new status should help fill empty dining tables.

“In the past, we used to turn people away. Today we aren’t doing that anymore and we’re one or two tables short,” he told The Associated Press from the kitchen where he spends most of his life, often from 7 a.m. to midnight.

“The third star is welcome because the seats we were missing will be filled tomorrow.”

Le Bristol, which opened in 1925, lies just down the street from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Parisian palace.

Frechon, whom Sarkozy decorated with the French Legion of Honor last year, says the president sometimes dines there a couple of times a week, and his favorite dish is the €80 ($101.15) starter of stuffed macaroni with black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras.

A native of Normandy, in western France, Frechon describes his menu as traditional French cooking with a modern touch.

To celebrate, Michelin invited Frechon and about 400 guests, including other starred Michelin chefs, VIPs and artists, to the Musee d’Orsay on Monday evening for an exhibition of 100 alternative guide covers.

Naret, the Michelin director, insisted the three-star rating was not influenced by Sarkozy’s culinary preferences.

“It’s not because it’s a restaurant that (Sarkozy) likes that it was chosen,” he said at a news conference in Paris.

Every year, the French culinary world trembles as the industry’s biggest names wait to see who will be the winners – and who will fall off their pedestal.

The reputation of the culinary bible, which started as an aid for French motorists, has taken a hit in recent years.

A former inspector caused a stir in 2004 by accusing the guide of letting standards slip and allowing some chefs undeservedly to keep stars because of their prestige. Several chefs have opted out of the system, complaining that it costs too much to maintain their Michelin stars.

And now, there’s the economic crisis.

“It’s not a question of being expensive or not,” Naret said, defending the guide’s choice of restaurants. “There are starred restaurants with prices for €20, €25 who know how to do quality cooking that is not so expensive.”

As well as the 548 starred restaurants, Michelin’s 2009 French edition also awards 527 restaurants with what it calls a “Bib Gourmand,” a sign of good value for money with meals costing no more than €35.

Nine new two-star restaurants – including British chef Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant at the Trianon Palace Hotel, Versailles, and a record 63 new one-star restaurants – also were announced in the latest version.

The ratings are determined by inspectors who taste food, visit kitchens and check plates, cutlery, glasses and even bathrooms.

The Michelin guide is published by the French tire company and is considered an authority on French gastronomy. The guide’s first edition was released in 1900, but it didn’t come out during the two World Wars or in 1921. It now publishes guides covering 23 countries.