Ten years ago, the death of celebrated French chef Bernard Loiseau from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the mouth sent shock waves across the culinary world. French tabloids went to town with the story, speculating that his three-Michelin-star restaurant La Cote d’Or was about to lose one of its coveted distinctions.
But his friend, Austrian-born US-based chef Wolfgang Puck, denies the charge: “He was so deep in debt that he didn’t know how to get out,” he says. “He spent so much money on his restaurant that I think the financial part was more difficult for him.”
Receiving a trio of Michelin stars is an honour that’s also a double-edged sword. The fame of the legendary red guide is such that it will elevate chefs to the stratosphere of the world’s greatest. By the same token, any downgrade will suggest the demise of genius. Whether or not Loiseau’s stormy financial state was the result of him propping up the sagging performance of his restaurant is a secret that went with him, but it demonstrates the passion and drama that surrounds the venerated guide and the lengths chefs go to attain and maintain such status.
“It’s like the Olympics – when I had my first three stars in 2002, every newspaper… featured me.”
Chef Guy Savoy
What started out in 1900 as a directory, telling French motorists where to go to grab a bite while on the road, has evolved into a culinary institution that’s revered as much as it is feared. Since then, it has expanded into countries like Spain, the UK and the US, including different guides for various Japanese cities, and Hong Kong and Macau.
“It’s like the Olympics,” says 60-year-old French celebrity chef Guy Savoy. “When I had my first three stars in 2002, every newspaper from The New York Times to Le Figaro featured me.”
Ensuingly, new restaurants that make it into the guide report a huge jump in takings. For 39-year-old chef Laurent Peugeot, getting his first and only star for Le Charlemagne in France increased business by a whopping 40 per cent. He has opened restaurants abroad like LP+Tetsu here in Singapore – following in the footsteps of other celebrity chefs.
These include some very influential names with outposts in Singapore. Savoy owns eight restaurants, located in places from Paris to Qatar; 64-year-old Puck is worth US$20 million (S$25 million) and ranks third in Forbes’ list of highest earning chefs; while Daniel Boulud, best known for his New York three-star restaurant, Daniel, is a frequent face on television. But this accolade comes at a price.
“I had to sacrifice family, friendship, entertainment. You just work. Work, work, work.”
Chef Daniel Boulud
“Ah pressure,” says Peugeot, as he stares at me in the eye. “Yes, yes of course. It’s very hard to keep that star.” Once a restaurant gets the accolade, expectations from patrons start to pile up – there is almost no room for error.
Boulud, who divorced three years ago and now lives above his New York restaurant, sings the same tune. The 58-year-old says: “It takes you a lifetime to get there, and a lot of sacrifice to learn to become a great restaurateur and a great three-star chef.”
He adds, thumping the table: “I had to sacrifice family, friendship, entertainment. You just work. Work, work, work.”
COOKING FOR STARS?
Chefs point out that the anonymous Michelin inspectors keep them on their toes. The guide’s former director, Luc Naret, says the judges “get exactly the same treatment as anyone else who goes to the restaurant from day to day”.
To deal with the anonymity, Savoy says that every guest must be happy every day, twice a day. And it’s not just kitchen or service operations that need to be top-notch – huge amounts of money are sunk to execute the perfect lunch or dinner service.
Says Puck of other restaurants: “Chefs think that they must invest a lot of money in cutlery, plates and decor to get three stars. The staff is under a lot of pressure to deliver everything perfectly. Everyone is so serious all the time.”
Adding the business factor, it is no wonder that chefs feel the pressure. Given Michelin’s clout, a chef could find himself at either end of the spectrum: on Forbes’ list of highest-earning chefs or succumbing to debt to keep up standards.
Says Boulud: “In all the years I’ve been cooking, I’ve seen many people failing, quitting and losing what they’ve worked on. It’s a very harsh business.” Either way, the influence the guide has on an ambitious chef is undeniable. “It’s always intimidating to talk about the Michelin stars,” he adds. “But, at the same time, it’s important to continue believing in what you do for yourself, your team and your customers.”