Too Many Cooks

A Guided Tour to French Cuisine

In France, cuisine has been elevated almost to religious status – and its bible in the Michelin Red Guide. But is that religion now dying? And is its bible the gospel truth?

Dying from cancer, barely able to breathe or speak, the last meal ordered by President Mitterrand was a dish of ortolans. These tiny birds are fabulously expensive. Then, as now, they are not only an endangered species, they are illegal to hunt. They are consumed according to a showy ritual which involves swallowing the bird whole while the eater wears a napkin over their head. The corruption, cruelty and lunacy of President Mitterrand’s final supper sums up not only his career but also much of France’s attitude to food.

For a hundred years that attitude has been expressed, recorded and guided by a single book, described as “the industry standard” (Harold Jackson, food critic, The Guardian), “the word of God” (Paul Bocuse, French master chef) and “the Frenchman's food bible (in heft, volume and reverence)”.

This is the world-famous Michelin Guide. Every year, foodies riffle through its Bible-thin pages, red ribbon place-marker and incomprehensible symbols, to compare annual ratings of their favourite restaurants, or look to see if a chef has been elevated to the hallowed status of the three-star ranking. Then they check to see if anyone has lost their grip. For a chef, demotion can mean, literally, the kiss of death.

In Mitterrand's time, the small town of Saulieu in the Burgundy region often heard the beat of helicopter blades, which signalled the arrival of the President, flying several hundred miles from Paris for dinner at Michelin three-star restaurant, La Côte d'Or. It was owned and run by chef Bernard Loiseau. His signature dish was frogs' legs in garlic purée on a bed of parsley sauce.

In February, 2003, Loiseau was informed that another guide, Gault-Millau, had just downgraded his restaurant. He feared that a knock-on effect would cause Michelin to drop him from three to two-stars. He went upstairs to his bedroom and shot himself. 

The French take cuisine seriously. Its landscapes have always been varied and fertile. The peasants who worked them were historically paid in kind by the land-owning aristos. Without money (and with sex strictly regulated by a repressive church), food became the national distraction and comfort. Many of today’s French delicacies, truffles, oysters, petits poids and even horse, were considered either vermin or animal fodder until the French Revolution, fit only for the garbage-disposal appetites of the peasantry. 

By combining and recombining available, low-quality ingredients, surmises Jonathan Fenby, author of On The Brink (1999) the art of cuisine was created: “the original versions of modern dishes may have been horribly effective – sausage juice offsetting rotten fish, tart apple sauce sharpening the gelatine of trotters”.

Over centuries, each region developed its own distinctive cuisine based on local produce; butter from the Charante-Maritime, poultry from Burgundy and olive oil from Provence. These foodstuffs are highly regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system, ostensibly to protect their purity (and not, as foreign exporters complain, to create de facto closed markets). Prices for some of the best produce are so high that food pirates are known to buy green lentils from the Cantal département, dye them with green ink and pass of them off as the AOC-approved pulses from the neighbouring Haute-Loire.

Crimes against food are a grave business in France, a country that has no qualms in force-feeding geese to produce foie gras. In 2002 French superchef Jean Bardet suffered his profession’s equivalent of a summary execution when a French court fined him €4500 for “menu lies”. 

In his summing-up, the prosecutor, Christian Dreux, described the chef as a "poet of French haute cuisine, part of our national heritage", who had "behaved like chop-house proprietor of the very lowest order". His celebrated two-star restaurant in the Loire valley town of Tours was found, amongst other blasphemies, to have been passing off “dairy cheese” as “farmyard cheese”.

Needless to say Michelin immediately stripped him of his stars and drummed him out of its Red Guide. When it comes to food, what Michelin says goes without question or appeal. It sold 415,000 copies of guides in France last year (with a total sale of about one million for all of its food guides around the world). 

Until very recently, Michelin’s methods were more secretive than a papal conclave. Former Michelin editor Derek Brown is prepared to say that the Guide employs seventy inspectors for Europe who visit establishments included in the guides at least once every year. They pay their own bills and work anonymously.

The precise criteria for star-dispensing are known only to Michelin. "If we published guidelines”, Brown says, "we'd have five hundred restaurants all the same. We want to encourage the differences that exist.”

Recently, though, Michelin’s infallibility and impartiality have been questioned. In 2004, Michelin sacked Pascal Rémy working sixteen years as a Guide inspector. He went on to spill the beans on the workings of the secretive Guide in his book L'Inspecteur se met à table (“The Inspector Sits Down to Eat”). He claims that Michelin in reality has less than a dozen inspectors at work at any one time and each tested only about two hundred restaurants per year, a tiny fraction of the establishments listed.

"There's a myth that 'the inspector comes each year'. In fact, it used to be every two years, and now it's every three and a half years," he writes.

To Michelin, according to Rémy, certain restaurants were "untouchable" which meant they could never be demoted. "More than a third" of the three-star establishments, he concluded, were "not up to scratch". Rémy's main complaint is that the guide has become too complicit with France's chefs. "Marketing has crushed gastronomic good sense," he says.

Slowly but surely, even some French are beginning to agree. While a number of famous foreign establishments, like Marco Pierre White's Oak Room and Nico Ladenis's Chez Nico at 90, both in the UK, have asked not to be considered by the Guide, some in France are making the same request. Loire valley restaurant, La Chancelière, made news across France when it renounced its own Michelin stars.

Perhaps the Guide’s greatest challenge is that it is just too French. "One problem with Michelin has been that... they tend to reward restaurants with a traditional French style rather than on their own terms," says Colman Andrews, editor-in-chief of Saveur, a food and drink magazine, based in New York. 

This blasphemy is spreading to France itself. In May 2005, Alain Senderens, one of the most flamboyant Paris chefs, announced that he was spurning his three stars and returning to simpler fare. 

“I want to have fun and do something else”, said the man who invented the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in the 1970s. “ A three star is too formal, too stuffy. I have had enough of the obligations that go with the three stars.”

Michelin’s reaction to this – and other – mutinies is to ignore them. On hearing the news of Senderens’s apostasy, Michelin’s Marie-Benedicte Chevet icily reminded him that: “As far as the stars are concerned, it is only Michelin who can decide whether to award them or not”.


How To Eat An Ortolan: “The ortolan (or bunting in England). The gourmets of France consider the ortolan, an endangered species, to be one of the world’s greatest dishes... L’ortolan is a little lemon-colored songbird that weighs only a few ounces or a 100 grams... First you force feed them. When they’ve reached four times their normal size, they’re drowned in a snifter of Armagnac. Then you pop them in a hot oven for six to eight minutes and serve. Now the eating part is really far more remarkable than the cooking. First you cover your head with a traditional embroidered cloth. Then you put the entire bird into your mouth. Only its head should dangle out from between your lips. Bite the head off. The hot bird should cool in your mouth as its delicious fat drips past your tongue. Now, slowly, chew. Most appreciated are the tiny lungs and heart, which have been saturated with Armagnac from its drowning. There are those who say you can taste the bird’s life essence as it trickles down your throat.” Alasdair Sandford, EuroQuest, 25 April 2005


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