Star Players

7 minute read

Few things spark foodie fights like the Michelin Red Guide. Devotees view the book of restaurant ratings with near religious reverence, faithfully using it as a map for culinary pilgrimage. After each year’s edition is published, they rush to dine (and be seen dining) in the newly starred eateries. Detractors say that while the restaurants included may be good, there are other, often better ones left out. The 102-year-old Guide, they gripe, is too fusty, too fussy, too French.

But whichever side of the table one sits on, the consensus is that establishments with three stars, Michelin’s highest rating, are extraordinary. At these restaurants, says Derek Brown, director of the Michelin Red Guides, diners should be “astonished by what they find: the very best products and people who have mastered the art of cooking.”

This year, Michelin elevated five European chefs — Spain’s Martín Berasategui, Cees Helder, of the Netherlands, and Frenchmen Jean-Georges Klein, Christian Le Squer and Guy Savoy — to the three-star ranks. Their restaurants join just 37 others in Europe that hold the top rating. As this year’s newbies entered the summer season and prepared for the rush of those who travel just to eat, TIME talked with all five about the importance of tradition, their own culinary philosophies and the challenge of retaining the precious — and lucrative — third star.

New Takes On Tradition
one common complaint is that the Guide favors traditional French cuisine. “Chauvinistic,” says food critic Egon Ronay. “It has always been like that.” At first glance, the 2002 list suggests that little has changed. More than half of Europe’s three-star restaurants are in France; of those that aren’t, many serve French or French- inspired cuisine. In this year’s class, only Berasategui’s Basque-based fare at his eponymous restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, Spain is clearly non-French. And three of the chefs — Helder, Le Squer and Savoy — trained in old-fashioned apprenticeships, learning the techniques and traditions that form the backbone of classical French cookery.

Just because the methods are traditional doesn’t mean menus — and the minds behind them — will be. Helder says today’s cooking tends to be far lighter than the heavy dishes of the past. Berasategui notes the use of new ingredients like lemongrass. And listen to Le Squer, of Paris’ Ledoyen, who says his rigorous training makes it “impossible for me to present a dish that is anything less than perfect.” The surf crashing on the rocky coast of his native Brittany inspired his signature dish, dressed spider crab served in its shell with a soufflé of “sea foam.” “The soft element melts in the mouth, while the crunchy one releases its flavor beneath the teeth,” he says, likening the feel to Häagen-Dazs, “the first to make ice cream with little crunchy bits in it.”

Klein, whose career has been the most unconventional of this year’s chefs, seems to be the odd man out. His whole career has been spent at L’Arnsbourg, the Alsatian inn started by his grandmother. For 19 years after finishing catering school, he didn’t even cook, working instead as maître d’hôtel. He began helping in the kitchen in 1988, after his mother won a Michelin star by shifting from Alsatian fare to a Mediterranean- inspired menu more typical of the south of France. Klein has since added flavors from farther afield, in dishes like coconut red-mullet soup spiced with Madras curry and sprinkled with aquatic mint. “I’ll try an unusual mixture that someone from the classical tradition wouldn’t think of,” he says. But his foundation is the same. “You have to have the basics of traditional cookery.”

Keep It Simple
On the farm where he grew up, “food wasn’t central,” says Cees Helder, the only chef in the Netherlands with three stars. “But my mother was a very good cook.” One dish stands out in Helder’s memory: hare stewed in its own gravy with onions. “It was so natural,” he says, deliciously simple in a style that he emulates at Parkheuvel, his Rotterdam restaurant, where the menu features more elaborate dishes, including ravioli stuffed with shoulder of pork and grilled turbot with an anchovy cream.

Escoffier would be proud. “You can get so much pleasure from very simple things,” says Savoy. “This morning, I feasted on a slice of bread and salted butter.” Visit his Paris restaurant (also called Guy Savoy), and the dishes will be more sophisticated (and more expensive) than your basic baguette and beurre. But they’ll be created in the same spirit. Savoy likes to work with a single ingredient, emphasizing the multiplicity of flavors and textures. Take his agneau dans tous ses états — roughly, lamb every which way — which includes grilled lamb kebab, roast saddle of lamb, poached lamb’s knuckle and grilled lamb’s neck confit. Says Savoy: “It’s a way of demonstrating the wealth of tastes that exist within one product.”

Klein agrees with the “less is more” philosophy. “You have to keep the product intact,” he says. Try his tasting menu, a rambling affair with more than a dozen dishes, and you’ll experience myriad flavors. But each part of the meal will only have a few, something intended to be “in tune with the spirit of the time,” he says. “It got me the third star this year.”

Pressure Cooking
michelin giveth, and michelin taketh away. The loss of a star can be devastating. “I’ve got a friend who lost his [third star] two years ago, and he still hasn’t got over it,” says food critic Périco Légasse. “He’s still on tranquilizers in a state of depression.” At least he’s alive. French chef Alain Zick killed himself after losing a star in 1966.

The pressure on top chefs can be intense. After the third star is won, business booms, the phone rings constantly with people trying to get tables, and the work truly begins. “Everything has to be perfect,” says Klein. “Sometimes I’m completely beset with doubt.” The honor “gives you an added responsibility not to let down all those who have put their faith and confidence in you,” says Berasategui. But there is great satisfaction in cooking for diners “who know about and appreciate their food,” and Michelin stars help draw that crowd.

The ratings can, of course, change expectations. Customers “start looking at you as if you are an artist,” Le Squer says. “For the chef, nothing’s changed.” The linens still need to be starched, the silver polished, the meals cooked, the guests served. Says Helder: “We just try to do what we do better and better — more refinement, not only in the kitchen but with the total image.” Rewarding as honors may be, these guys didn’t go into the business to pursue stars or to please a bunch of anonymous critics who write for a tire company. “People have forgotten that cooking is above all about enjoying yourself,” says Savoy. “It’s the art of transforming ingredients, which each have their own story, into joy.” I’ll have some of that, please.

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