Being awarded a Michelin star is something that most chefs dream of, akin to the Academy Awards of the food world. But unlike winning an Oscar, a Michelin star can be taken away. While this does sound potentially devastating for a chef, does it constitute a criminal act? One particular French chef believes so and is taking the Michelin Guide to court over the loss of one of these sacred stars.
Chef Marc Veyrat
Marc Veyrat is renowned for his signature wide-brimmed Savoyard hat, his use of organic ingredients in molecular gastronomy and, now, for suing the Michelin Guide. Veyrat has been awarded a whopping nine Michelin stars in total over the course of his career and was the first chef to be awarded 20 out of 20 twice by French restaurant guide Gault&Millau. He is undoubtedly talented and considered by many to be one of the best chefs in the world. So why was his restaurant demoted from three stars (the highest possible rating) to two stars? And why is he taking legal action?
According to CNN, Veyrat’s restaurant, La Maison des Bois, in Haute-Savoie lost its three-star status in January 2019. A devastated Veyrat filed the lawsuit in hopes that the court would force the Michelin Guide to hand over the documents detailing the reasons behind the downgrade. He also demanded that the names and CVs of all the Michelin inspectors be handed to him.
He believes the reason for his demotion is that the inspector mistakenly thought Veyrat used British Cheddar instead of a fine French cheese in his soufflé. As evidence given in support of this grave misunderstanding, Veyrat’s lawyer, Emmanuel Ravanas, presented a video of the soufflé being prepared with Reblochon and Beaufort, two cheeses native to the French Alps. Veyrat stated that the addition of saffron attributed to the soufflé’s yellow colour, which proved the inspectors’ “deep incompetence”. The guide has denied these cheese claims.
The Michelin Guide is often thought of as CIA-level elusive and secretive, with the inspectors remaining completely anonymous during restaurant visits. A restaurant will not be informed of a Michelin visit, and restaurateurs (as well as the public) will most likely never know the prestigious inspectors’ names. This is to ensure a completely unbiased and honest dining experience. As food critics ourselves, we know it’s not unheard of for restaurants to up their game and provide critics with superior service when they are aware a review is at stake. By hiding their identities, Michelin inspectors should have the same dining experience as any other customer.
While an inspector’s account of his or her dining experience and grading rationale is kept secret, the grading framework is transparent and straightforward: quality of ingredients; mastery of technique; harmony of flavours; the chef’s unique signature; value for money; consistency over time. Clearly, Veyrat thought his restaurant couldn’t have faltered on any of these points and went as far as to state that his demotion is “unprecedented in the history of gastronomic criticism”.
Veyrat claims to have suffered from depression for six months after finding out that the star was taken away and that he couldn’t sleep for three months prior to the guide being released. In an interview with Franceinfo magazine, he said the loss felt like “my parents have died a second time”. He also demanded to be removed from the guide entirely. Michelin refused. He’s even accused the guide of having never visited his restaurant. In response to Veyrat’s lawsuit, the Michelin Guide is asking for €30,000 in damages. Michelin’s lawyer, Richard Malka, stated that Veyrat’s demands went against “the constitutional right to freedom of expression” and that the chef’s case was rooted in “pathological egoism”.
Veyrat’s case comes two years after another famed French chef, Sébastien Bras, said that he wished to be left out of the 2018 edition of the guide because of the pressure of holding onto three stars for over a decade. His restaurant, Le Suquet, returned to the guide in 2019 with a two-star rating. This wasn’t the first time a chef has requested their restaurant be removed from the guide, with many chefs citing psychological and financial stress as their reason.
In Hong Kong, we know the trials and tribulations of the “Michelin curse” all to well, with many small, family-run Michelin and Bib Gourmand spots closing their doors after being unable to maintain their restaurants owing to the inevitable increases in customers and fees. The high-profile and tragic suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Chef Benoît Violier (of three-Michelin-starred Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville) started a much-needed discourse in the culinary community about the immense pressures that chefs are under and the psychological stress they often suffer as a result.
Whether Veyrat is a narcissist, fragile artist or anti-Michelin crusader shining the light on a stressful and potentially harmful system is for you (and the courts) to decide. However, one thing is for sure: this will go down in history as the first legal case against the restaurant bible that is the Michelin Guide. A ruling on #cheesegate is expected on 31 December 2019, and you can bet we’ll be waiting on the edges of our seats.
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