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Fallen Star

How seriously do the French take their menus. Ask Jean Bardet.

March 22, 2000|ACHRENE SICAKYUZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TOURS, France — When Jean Bardet learned he had been stripped of his two-star ranking in the latest edition of the Michelin guide, he almost killed himself out of despair. Only the intervention of his wife, Sophie, and a couple of friends prevented it.

"There is nothing more terrible for an artisan like my husband than disappearing from the guide," Sophie Bardet, 58, explained.

The 59-year-old chef's offense? Mislabeling of products. Cheeses labeled as farm-produced weren't. Fish sold as line-caught were actually snared in nets. Asparagus that was supposed to have come from the renowned area of Bourgueil didn't. Veal labeled as coming from one farm was from another. A wine was misidentified on the carte du vin.

Perhaps trivial by American standards, these offenses were serious indeed under the numbingly complex regulations governing food in France, laws so Byzantine that even successful professionals like the Bardets say they don't always understand them.

In December, a court in Tours sentenced the husband-and-wife team of restaurateurs to a fine of more than $2,000 each for fraud. The outraged prosecutor, who had demanded a prison sentence, appealed.

"The prosecutor said if my husband had been the owner of a cheap low-class restaurant, he would not have been in this situation, but as he is a symbol of French gastronomy, he should have known the French law about cheese," Sophie Bardet said.

The Michelin guide, wary of even the semblance of scandal, pulled Jean Bardet's stars in the 2000 guide released this month, its 91st edition. In fact, all mention of the restaurant and 21-room hotel has been dropped.

"Taking a restaurant out of our guide is no usual measure, we do that when a business is in trouble. As soon as everything is settled, we rehabilitate him," Bernard Naegellen, editor of the celebrated red-backed guide, told Agence France-Presse.

The case has rocked French gastronomic circles, raising questions about whether diners in the country's finest restaurants always get the dishes they pay for and even whether the dreaded Michelin critics always recognize what they are eating.

L'affaire Bardet began two years ago, when government fraud inspectors swooped down on the stately 19th century residence nestled on eight acres and started inventorying the pantry. For 15 years, Bardet's two stars in the Michelin guide had made him and his luxurious hotel-restaurant in the Loire valley city of Tours part of the firmament of French cuisine.

But at Jean Bardet's Chateau Belmont, in the words of the old Gilbert and Sullivan song, skim milk sometimes masqueraded as cream, or at least as another type of skim milk.

Take the case of cheese. The Bardets' menu included a platter of Saint-Nectaire, Norman Camembert, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre and 14 other cheeses supposedly made right where the cows were milked. The inspectors determined that 11 of them came from production sites elsewhere.

Similarly, they were accused of selling veal from a Monsieur Pion that came from an equally small farm nearby and "line-caught" sea bass that had been fished with nets.

Bardet's menu also advertised asparagus from the Loire region of Bourgueil, though on the day the inspectors dropped by, the chef's suppliers hadn't delivered any.

The wine list portrayed a Co^tes de Thongue vin de pays as a more prestigious appellation d'origine controlee (and priced it at $27, although it could have been bought for a tenth of that in a supermarket).

In most of these cases, the Bardets say, they were the unwitting victims of misrepresentation at the hands of suppliers. "How were they to know that the veal they bought from Mr. Pion actually came from his neighbor?" asked their lawyer, Dominique Heintz.

"Instead of going after the producers of the incriminated foodstuffs, they [the fraud inspectors] are taking it out on us," Sophie Bardet complained.

On March 14, an appeals court reduced the fine against the Bardets to $1,700 apiece. They were found guilty of "false advertising" regarding the cheese, sea bass and asparagus. But the court stressed that "the quality and freshness of the foodstuffs had never been in doubt."

What at first seemed a life-ending drama to Bardet now is accepted with stoicism. "It would have been worse if they had taken a star from us and left us in the guide, the customers would have wondered if our quality had lowered," his wife, a former publicist, told a visiting reporter.

At the restaurant, little seems to have changed except the menu, where language that offended the inspectors, or that might give rise to more problems, has been excised. "Wanting to be too exact played against me," Sophie Bardet said. "Now, the menu is less precise. I just offer lobster and do not mention if it comes from Brittany, Canada or if it is frozen."

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