The unbearable sadness of French chefs who lose their Michelin stars

Lovely, but will the inspectors agree?
Lovely, but will the inspectors agree?
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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The latest Michelin guide to the best restaurants in France comes out on Friday (Feb. 6), but the results were announced earlier this week: there are now 26 three-star, 80 two-star and more than 500 one-star restaurants in the country.

As always, this time around there are chefs who have lost their Michelin stars, which hold a special place in haute cuisine, especially in Europe. Some take the demotion in their stride; some, like Gordon Ramsay, burst into tears when they find out; and others even hand stars back, saying the accolade is more trouble than it’s worth.

But for many chefs in France, where the Michelin guide has been rating the quality of restaurants since 1900, losing your stars is a crushing blow. Le Monde critic François Simon, who compares the “secret” decision-making of Michelin inspectors to the inscrutability of the Chinese Communist Party (link in French), expressed his sympathy to those who were demoted this time around. ”It is hard to imagine what that means in this environment,” he said. “It’s like losing face. It’s terrible.”

This year, La Côte Saint Jacques in Burgundy went from three stars to two. The owner, Jean-Michel Lorain, wrote a letter on his restaurant’s website (link in French) lamenting the loss, noting that the inspectors only complained that the seasoning was a bit off on some of the dishes. “Well, it seems that these few grains of salt will be enough to change our ranking!” He went on:

I am, of course, sorry personally, but also for my family, my daughters, my parents, who will be very disappointed, and for my team who work so hard around me with such passion and desire… What do we do now? Certainly not start to get depressed and give up. On the contrary! We will continue to move forward, create new dishes with even more desire and passion. We will still surprise and delight your taste buds.

The pain and soul-searching evident in Lorain’s open letter is not unusual. One chef in Nice who lost his Michelin star last year thought it was because he decided to add insects to the menu. “People have said to me that it doesn’t fit in with the criteria of the guide and of French gastronomy,” David Faure said.

The most shocking reaction to the loss of Michelin stars was Bernard Loiseau, who committed suicide in 2003 after a French newspaper reported that he was on the verge of losing his third star—which sadly turned out not be the case. Business at Loiseau’s restaurant went up by 60% after he won his third star in 1991. That third star, which came 14 years after he won his first, gave him the fame to get his company listed on the stock exchange, which allowed him to pay off the debts he accumulated by opening his own restaurant in Burgundy.

The loss of a star can see takings drop by as much as 25%, according to The New Yorker. In France, food really can be a matter of life and death.