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Hungry at the Top

March 05, 1997|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAULIEU, France — "We are selling dreams," French chef Bernard Loiseau says. "We are merchants of happiness."

For the three-star Michelin chef, one of the most celebrated of his generation, it's a risky, if rewarding, trade.

Balding and with the husky build of a rugby player from his native Auvergne region in central France, the 46-year-old Loiseau is taking time to chat with a visitor before he leaves for Paris later in the day. He plans to borrow 10 million francs, or about $1.75 million U.S., he says, to build 10 more rooms this year in his roadside hotel-restaurant, La Co^te d'Or. The previous day, the chef spent the morning poring over plans with his architect, accountant and banker, not working with his saucepans or 25-member kitchen staff.

Loiseau is already squeezed by so much debt that he has been paying monthly installments of 320,000 francs, or about $56,000, to his bankers. "The average customer's [dinner] check runs about 1,000 francs [$175]," Loiseau says. "It's not enough. What is that when compared to the number of people in the kitchen, the cost of the foodstuffs?"

For many of France's most celebrated and honored chefs, those who have garnered the highest honors in the Guide Michelin, this is truly a challenging time. The free-spending era the French call "the Thirty Glorious Years" has come to a screeching halt, and more customers than ever are scrutinizing the prices before ordering.

Conventional wisdom had it that epicurean French and foreign foodies would pay any price for black truffle dishes or a bottle of vintage Bordeaux. Some still will and do. But the value-added tax on restaurant food adds a hefty 20.6% to an already stiff tab. And with an unemployment rate of about 13%, even people with good jobs are apprehensive about the future.

Business lunches are down, and the carriage trade has been stagnant in many locales. On top of everything else, the French, of all people, are watching their weight these days.

To reach Michelin triple-stardom, the greatest badge of popular recognition a French chef can aspire to, some chefs, Loiseau among them, took on plenty of debt in the 1980s. The dynamic, perfectionist Loiseau ("I'm a madman," he admits happily) is making ends meet so well at his inn in rural Burgundy that, he says with great satisfaction, he will make a profit and have to pay taxes this year. But for others, changing market conditions have had the same calamitous effect as a cold snap on the dinosaurs.

Last spring, Pierre Gagnaire, one of today's most innovative chefs, had to close his Art Deco restaurant in the grimy industrial city of St-Etienne, population 200,000, after becoming the first Michelin three-star chef in history to declare bankruptcy. He has since left St-Etienne, 30 miles southwest of Lyon, and opened a new restaurant in Paris near the Champs-Elysees--and a vastly larger customer base.

In October, Marc Veyrat, a self-taught chef famed for his use of mountain herbs that he gathers himself, shut his Auburge de L'Eridan on the edge of Lake Annecy near the Swiss border. He reopened only after the banks that had lent him $10 million agreed to cut the size of the monthly installments and stretch out payments.

Veyrat, the king of the debtors among French chefs, had gone in for such lavishness in his successful trek toward Michelin's supreme rating that he even gold-plated the faucets in his auberge's rest rooms.

(For the record, Michelin maintains that it is interested only in excellence, not in swankiness. "We have never told anyone that they have to make colossal investments," guide director Bernard Naegellen has said. "We simply say they must cook well.")

In a headline-making event that highlighted some of the other costs of super-chefdom in a food-crazy but highly demanding country, Joel Robuchon, considered by some to be the finest French chef of the century, retired last summer from his jewel-box restaurant in the wealthy 16th arrondissement of Paris, citing the unrelenting stress of his job and his need of a break.

"I noticed that many chefs--and this is curious--have died in their 50s of heart attacks," Robuchon, who turns 52 next month, explained at the time.

So should the maxim for a French restaurateur be, "If you can't stand the heat, don't try to win a constellation of Michelin stars for your kitchen"? Not really, it seems. One two-star restaurant in the Paris suburb of Maisons-Laffitte did surrender its rating to go back to being a simple rotisserie. But if the costs of stardom have been high for some, the benefits can be heavenly.

"When it comes down to it, a third star [in the Guide Michelin] is the only fail-safe method for doubling business and joining the gods of haute cuisine," says food critic Alexandre Lazareff, director of the Council on Culinary Arts, a government agency designed to safeguard French gastronomy. "Once admitted into this sacred coterie, business contracts and lucrative invitations to give demonstrations abroad will follow."

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