In his new book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger examines the startling decline of French cuisine over the past few decades, explaining how a country that turned eating and drinking into an art form has lost its touch for cheese, wine, food, and fine dining. In today's excerpt, the first of two, Steinberger explains how the Michelin guide, which once celebrated the pinnacles of French culinary achievement, became a "millstone" around the necks of the nation's chefs. Tomorrow's excerpt explains how McDonald's conquered France—its second-biggest market in the world.
"We have to cut it. We have to kill it. We have to burn it." It was nine o'clock on a warm, hazy morning in May 2007. Paris was still half-asleep, the café was a picture of tranquility, and Luc Dubanchet was issuing a battle cry. The bellicose talk was directed not at another nation, nor at international terrorists, but at an enemy that he seemed to believe was nearly as dangerous: the Michelin Guide.
Dubanchet was the founder of a publication called Omnivore that sought to call attention to the most innovative French chefs. To hear him tell it, the Michelin Guide had become a dead weight for French cuisine. It discouraged creativity, demanded a level of opulence that made fine dining appealing and accessible only to rich fogeys, and was unacceptably opaque about its reviewing methods. Dubanchet said that he had started Omnivore in part to combat "the Michelin way of thinking about food, and the Michelin way of building restaurants, and the Michelin way of not explaining." It wouldn't be easy, he acknowledged; he and his colleagues were up against a pillar of French cultural life. But as the slight, bespectacled thirty-five-year-old sipped his coffee and looked out across the Place de la Bastille, cradle of an earlier revolution, he expressed steely confidence. "I want war," he said. "I want to tear down the Michelin system."
Even for an American well versed in the passions and peculiarities of French food culture, it was hard not to burst out laughing as Dubanchet enumerated the reasons why Fortress Michelin needed to be stormed. This was, after all, a restaurant guide he was talking about—a powerful one, to be sure, but a restaurant guide all the same. But while Dubanchet's language may have been overwrought, he wasn't exaggerating Michelin's clout, nor was he alone in believing that the Guide had become a malignant influence. Indeed, Michelin was then facing perhaps its most serious backlash ever, one that involved not just journalists but also some of the world's most esteemed chefs—a few of whom had even taken the radical step of handing back their Michelin stars.
Almost from the moment it began dishing out stars, in 1926, Michelin had been regarded as the Holy Writ of French gastronomy. It eventually became rare to set foot in a French car that didn't have a well-worn copy of the famous red book in its glove compartment or side pocket, and the annual publication of the Guide, with its promotions and demotions, was the Oscars of the French eating class.
Likewise, chefs had long been obsessed with satisfying one guest above all others: the anonymous Michelin inspector. If they could send him home happy, success was assured. For French chefs, Michelin wasn't merely a source of approbation; it defined what it meant to eat well in France. In this sense, it was as much a beacon for haute cuisine's practitioners as it was for its consumers. The chef Alain Chapel once described the Guide Rouge as "a light to guide us."
By outward appearances, the Guide was a dim, almost imperceptible, light, especially to modern diners accustomed to having exhaustive restaurant reviews available at the click of a mouse. In more than two thousand tissue-thin pages, it contained no actual descriptions of meals or settings. It provided only restaurant details—locations, contact information, prices, specialties of the house, amenities, days closed—some of which were conveyed via symbols rather than words. Alongside these was the main attraction, the ratings, expressed through the Guide's most important symbol of all: a small star. It would be hard to think of a more potent emblem in any realm of human activity. A single star could validate a career and put an entire village on the map. Two stars brought regional fame, sometimes even national recognition. Three stars, the highest and rarest classification (the most restaurants in France ever to hold three stars at any one time was twenty-seven), conferred admission into the pantheon of France's greatest chefs. But how to win Michelin's benediction was far from clear. What distinguished a three-star restaurant from a two-star? Chefs were always welcome to visit the Guide's offices on the Avenue de Breteuil in Paris to discuss their status, and many availed themselves of the opportunity. However, the answers they received were vague. Michelin said its ratings were based solely on the quality of the food and had nothing to do with the setting; that three- and two-star restaurants received more scrutiny than other establishments; and that its inspectors dined incognito and paid on the company tab. But Michelin wouldn't reveal the number of inspectors it employed, never explained its decisions, and appeared to take pleasure in being evasive.