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French Chefs Are Michelin Star-Struck


PARIS — For Emile Jung, it was like a death in the family. "No words can ease the pain that eats at our hearts and that has killed our spirits," he said.

The chef had just lost a Michelin star, demoted from three to two.

Friends filed into Jung's Au Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg to offer condolences, and colleagues took out a full-page newspaper ad to show their support.

In the elite galaxy of France's top restaurants, losing a star in Michelin's authoritative Red Guide is tantamount to doom. A demotion drove one chef in the 1970s to suicide, and has driven others to bankruptcy or despair.

In France, the gastronomic capital of the world, the guide is the food lover's road map and bible. Even a single Michelin star can double a restaurant's revenues, and three of them guarantee a chef overnight celebrity and months of advance reservations.

"For the two months every year before the guide comes out, I can't sleep," said Marc Veyrat, who replaced Alain Ducasse last year as the only chef in France with two three-star restaurants.

So intense was the panic this year that for the first time in its 102-year history, Michelin released its ratings two weeks before the book's publication to halt the rumors.

The 2002 guide crowned three newcomers: Jean-Georges Klein's L'Arnsbourg in northeastern France and two Paris favorites, Guy Savoy and Ledoyen.

Alain Passard of Arpege recalls the arrival of his third star in 1997 as "the most beautiful day of my life"--a life-altering moment that "makes you dream differently."

His staff is trained to keep the dream alive. "Are you ready?" the maitre d' asks at the start of an 11-course lunch. "We will do our best to regale you."

There is no background music and only a dozen generously spaced tables at Arpege, across from the Rodin museum in Paris' Left Bank. The entertainment comes in the form of an avocado and caviar puree scented with pistachio oil, langoustine raviolis in a delicate consomme, a perfectly cooked sea bream. Known for his exotic flair, Passard closes his tasting lunch with his signature dessert: a candied stuffed tomato.

Across town at Ledoyen, the phones have been ringing nonstop, said its rising young chef, Christian Le Squer.

"Since getting our third star, we have pages and pages of reservations," said Le Squer, 39. Tables are booking up through June at Ledoyen, housed in an 18th-century pavilion off the Champs Elysees. "It's like a wonderful gift from the heavens."

Le Squer is now an instant celebrity in the food world. Like some other three-star chefs, he may begin referring to himself in the third person.

One who does is Bernard Loiseau, the celebrated chef of a restaurant in a small French town. "Bernard Loiseau is a spokesman for French cuisine," he says of himself. "My third star launched my international fame."

But each year, the heavens shift mysteriously, as they did this year for Jung.

"Bravo Emile," consoled the advertisement in his local newspaper, which told him to always keep "your head in the stars." It was signed: "The Chefs of Alsace and all your friends."

Michelin didn't explain the demotion. It never does.

Its team of anonymous "inspectors" eat their way through France, visiting and revisiting thousands of restaurants. They even make spot checks on toilets. The company's strict secrecy codes bar them from giving interviews or being photographed. To guarantee anonymity, Michelin relocates its inspectors at least once a year.

"We've calculated that the possibility of any inspector visiting the same restaurant happens once every 10 years," said Jean-Frederic Douroux, a spokesman for the Michelin guide.

Before awarding a three-star rating, Michelin inspectors will have paid as many as several dozen visits to a restaurant--always in groups of two or more, so as not to draw attention in fancy restaurants where people seldom dine alone.

Douroux defines a three-star restaurant as one that offers diners "an entirely unique experience, and one that we recommend is worth the trip, no matter where you live in the world." Of the guide's 4,084 listed restaurants, just 23 have three stars.

Nine of those are in Paris, but the guide's influence is perhaps most apparent in small French towns like Saulieu, where Loiseau's Cote d'Or has become a mecca for the world's gourmets.

"Russians come here, Australians, Americans, and they all come carrying their Michelin guides," said Loiseau, whose Web site appears in French, English, Spanish, German and Japanese.

Loiseau's success in his small Burgundy town has spawned a culinary empire, which he launched a few years ago on the Paris stock exchange. He has three restaurants in Paris, and his picture appears on a brand of supermarket frozen dinners. But Loiseau is quick to say that he stays in the kitchen, in Saulieu.

"Bernard Loiseau has one job," he says. "It's to greet his clients at his three-star, to manage his three-star and to keep his three stars."

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