A Great Chef Goes Toe-to Toe-With Bibendum

Alain Dutournier, best known among his peers and to serious diners of both classic and traditional French cuisine sustained a unique lambasting from the powers that be who create the 2019 Guide Michelin France: His two fine dining restaurants each lost a star and his bistrot Buci Nazarine was removed from the guide altogether, all on the same day. Dutournier did not take this lightly, and there is no way to know what the financial consequences will be other than they won’t be light. His first restaurant Au Trou Gascon, which lost its one star, has been a mainstay of the Paris dining scene since 1978 which he then turned over to his wife when he opened in 1989 the luxurious Carré des Feuillants (demoted from two stars to one) on the Place Vendôme. To rein destruction in one felt swoop on a chef’s livelihood and reputation that took over 40 years to build is incomprehensible.( Rumor has it that the recently-appointed international director of Michelin Guides Gwendal Poullennec was engaging in pay-back for when Dutournier called the then-guide director Jean-Luc Naret, for whom Poullennec was working for at the time, a clown.)

Since that fateful day of this past January 24, Dutournier has written three missives. All are plaintive and well-reasoned. They elucidate what enlightened gastronomes find objectionable now about Michelin–its favoritism towards glamour chefs at the expense of older, classically-trained chefs and their tried and true cuisine . Dutournier’s prose is of significance to anyone who relies on the Michelin Guides.

First Open Letter: 

Michelin and its Shooting Stars: Send in the Parade!

As I and my brigades have always worked for the satisfaction and happiness of the customers who express these feelings to us every day, I have always sensed some nuance of appreciation on the part of the Guide Michelin. But then on a recent Sunday morning at 10:00, Mr. Gwendal Poullennec, the new director, politely informed me that the Michelin Guide took away one of its two stars from my restaurant Carrée des Feuillants. That morning we were together with the founders of the Collège Culinaire de France whose colleague Marc Haeberlin was also deeply disappointed over the demotion of his restaurant L’Auberge de L’Ill from three stars to two. Alain Ducasse wanted me to share a lunch with Michel Guérard and Guy Savoy around fantastic tête de veau cooked in la grande tradition. This moment of friendly and warm conviviality warmed my heart, but then at 7:00 pm we learn through the press that my dear restaurant Au Trou Gascon had its one star amputated after 42 years of good and loyal service!

We live in a curious period of French restauration in which creative talents flourish respectful of our culinary values while others seduce certain palates with off-the-cuff dishes in which the visual counts more than the taste while failing to ignore and appreciate the merits of the former and giving way to the Fashionistas and the ephemeral of the latter

As you know, the beauty of life in the kitchen feeds on deep convictions. The insatiable thirst for novelty cannot be found in a sustainable way. My fight will always be for an imaginative cuisine that perpetuates our artisan culinary heritage.

Let us keep the freedom to either surf the futility of life or dedicate ourselves to the essentials that bring us together. Let us take advantage of this triviality to cultivate our values and continue to cater to the happiness of our customers. In this unpleasant moment, we commend the responsiveness and commitment of our collaborators in the perpetual quest for beautiful work every single day. Let us wish for a great deal of happiness in 2019 and for a renewed fighting spirit against those who have punished us.

Alain Dutournier

2nd Open Letter:

Thanks for your Moving Messages.

We are close to 2000 guardian angels who have reacted to our Michelin black Monday of January 21, 2019. The touching messages from friends, customers, professional associations both on-line; by email; as well as the print media, radio and television; the many very touching phone calls; the friendly visits and the many cards have reignited the fighting spirit of the 50 staff members of Le Carré des Feuillants and Au Trou Gascon who work twice a day for the happiness of as many as 75 customers per service. It is very important for us to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your great encouragement. In this trying time for our companies, victims of a certain atmosphere, a handful of inspectors found it useful to sanction Le Carrée de Feuillants after 33 years of fidelity and the starred Au Trou Gascon for 42 years. This does diminish my professional life, which remains a superb adventure of happiness, in which I have always worked surrounded by young passionate and dedicated collaborators in order to convey beautiful emotions to clients whose independent individual appreciation is worth all the recognition. Case closed… but these latest events were not what I had planned.

Cohabitation: Travelers, Tourism and Cuisine.

 By coincidence yesterday, the 24th of January, I met by chance Michael Ellis, the former international director of the Michelin Guides, who left his position last year. His first reaction after warmly greeting me was to repeat, “I am very, very sorry for what has happened since I left the Guide!” Ellis reminded me of his esteem for my cuisine. He was already a faithful client of Au Trou Gascon in the 1980s, which he patronized for his personal pleasure. Although I have known for a long time that silence prevents arrogance, and while I wished to keep silent during his visits, this recent meeting became reflections about the defense of our French culinary heritage and its transmission of its beautiful values to future generations. As  writing is always resilient, all this upheaval leads to meditating on our fine craft and the freedom to exercise it. To live a  passion of a profession and having to suffer from the pressures of a very large French company that assumes the right to be both judge and jury seems disturbing for the democratic future of our trade.

Originally the Michelin Company published in 1900 a French guide showing routes, garages and hotels in order to facilitate driving for the motorists using their eponymous tires. In 1926 the Guide listed the “Stars of Good Tables”. Five years later Michelin began the classifying these tables with one, two or three stars, especially on the Paris-Lyon-Marseille route. The famous guide gets through the war and after. In 1968, with the beginning of La Nouvelle Cuisine Française, the guide, always in the utmost secrecy while greatly increasing its print run, starts influencing French cuisine by making and unmaking reputations.

From the Tire to the Fork:

Going in more or less superficial directions, the guide is subjected to many influences. The obsession with developing growth forgets the artisanal, even family, enterprise centered around a personalized culinary heritage and is oriented instead towards large hotel groups and a growing number of foreign countries. In the early 2000s the digital revolution dramatically lowered the run of the print edition. The guide now needs to communicate “l’air du temps” and to generate advertising revenue. Through their digital presence, they have a reservation platform paid for by the restaurateurs (2 euros per diner and 0.50 for non-guide bookings) as well as a subscription package, charging 99 Euros a month plus built-in expenses. Currently in its commercial diversification the brand ” Guide Michelin” sells kitchen utensils in the large supermarkets. This new “army in the shadows” is still as mysterious as always about the secrets of values and criteria for judging. Influenced by its 40% interest in the restaurant guide publisher “Fooding”; soliciting and contracting a large number of industrial sponsors; and a “fête” of four hours to announce to the public the consecrated and the punished, all of this P.T. Barnum activity is far from the artisans of the casserole and small producers of the treasures of natural food.

An Example of Discernment:

 Once again examples of true morality come from real professionals. I have just participated on a jury comprised of all experienced and recognized professionals in the finals of Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition, the rules of which are: The candidates know all the criteria on which they will be judged; the candidates are kept anonymous for the judging of technique and taste; the members of  tasting juries, of which I am one, are isolated from each other in order to allocate very detailed estimates; each component of the final score must be clarified and justified when needed . Despite this protocol, some competitors who have not obtained the title have the opportunity to make a claim with the Education Nationale, which will give them the reasons for the judging of his performance.

The “Guide Rouge”, which belongs to a huge French industrial company, could be inspired by our professional values, which are more than respectable. I think of the peer-group Culinary College of France, in which I am voluntarily involved, that  manages 2500 members in exemplary fashion. In banning any industrial sponsor or subsidies from the State, we show that good conscience exists in this commercial world. To optimize the future of the Michelin Guide, it seems imperative to define the rules of the game between chefs, customers, inspectors and decision makers of the famous guide. For this we must specify all the required criteria: How the values of our culinary culture are considered; the mastery of the authenticity of our domestic products; and the definition of the competences of the judges or inspectors. All this would make the decisions more enlightening and would give more depth in both the reflections and explanations.

The Transmission of Hope:

The opportune moment has come for a company so important and involved in our professional values to become aware of the good that it can bring to French cuisine by protecting it, valuing it, and mediating it intelligently while also respecting it. We have made the entire world dream of France’s culinary excellence. Allow it to help the young generation to believe in our beautiful idealized gastronomic values throughout the world and from appreciating the centuries of mastery, cross-fertilization and transmission of savoir-faire. If God in creating the earth chose France for Paradise, I have the feeling that some disbelievers still do not really know this.

Alain Dutournier – 25 January 2019

Third Open Letter:

Dear Friends, 

I am not writing this particularly out of a feeling of, or need for, bouncing back, and even less so by being victimized by a situation that one finds everywhere. Since my childhood when it was my dream to become a chef, I continue to share with great happiness good taste and the labor in providing hospitality. Following the removal from the Guide Michelin of my well-regarded Bistrot Buci Mazarine, the taking away of the remaining star at Restaurant Au Trou Gascon and the demotion of the Le Carré des Feuillants, I have definitely turned a page with Michelin.

French cuisine and the Michelin Guide: Snake Oil

On the morning of Friday, February 8th, Gwendal Poullennec, the new director of the Michelin Guide, spoke to me by phone for quite a long time, during which we also arranged to meet. He accepted my conditions that I was ready to discuss the relationship between the Guide and my profession, but that in no case would I agree to discuss the judgment of my restaurants.  He visited me that very afternoon and for more than two hours we politely discussed only about our respective work. I found his words quite fertile and with an awareness of the troubled relationship situation following the release of the 2019 Guide. He seemed ready to review the result of the last fifteen years of the dictatorial opaqueness of the Guide.

With my 42 years of Michelin-starred experience serving French cuisine, I thank you, M. Poullennec, for taking in our discussions of the situation. Of course, you know me and know the importance I attach to collective values. Also, if you find our discussion interesting, do not hesitate to discuss it with the management of Michelin; this in order to find more respectable values for our young chefs who always need continuous recognition to carry on the values of French cooking as they relate to the exceptional know-how of our craftsmen and producers.I thank you again and remain available to make for a more positive relationship.

French Cuisine and the Michelin Guide: The News

Until about fifteen years ago, the Guide Michelin was a coveted reference by French restaurants and their patrons. Professionals considered it to be the Gourmet’s Bible, an independent non-profit institution.

Since 2000, the waltz of the many different directors has changed the game by concealing many of the Guide’s founding values for the sole purpose of expanding to more than 30 countries, all too often in eagerness without much rigor and lacking professionalism and lack of training.  Take for example the sudden deluge of stars that fell on Japan, the multiple culinary influences they engendered, particularly in Tokyo, and the consequences of the taste of the inspectors.

The obsession with the commercial development of the Guide has forgotten the artisanal aspect, even the familial one built around a personalized culinary heritage, and has turned towards large hotel groups that are often in the hands of foreign investors. Yet the best tables in Europe and often in the world that are recognized and honored by the Guide practice great French cuisine and nonetheless remain the historical base of the Michelin myth.

Today, the Guide does not hesitate to promote with fervor a new globalist trend seen primarily on the Internet and in which appearance comes before taste, favoring the world-wide standardization of what the consumer is offered. The cult of the bland begins to spread as the notion of acidity and bitterness seems to fade. In too many “fashionable” dishes, fruits often take the place of vegetables and flowers that of aromatic herbs.

This need for sweetness too often deviates towards disrupting the relevance of wines, not to mention the deleterious effect on the health aspects of consumers. For the client, as with many professionals, the restaurant is still an area of freedom, so it is very difficult to admit to certain differences or changes despite the quality of a specific lunch or dinner. Take for example the dictatorial “white menu”, more economical in terms of labor compared to those professionals who employ a much larger brigade and who take six or seven times more risk in bringing their meals to fruition.

If in France the omakase at the counter orchestrated by two sushi chefs who are recognized in their country deserves a star, why not also give one to a sublime lacquered duck made in the time-honored way or very elegant cannelloni of rare finesse that is light years ahead of a trendy pasta, or to a high-end couscous? These  tried and true manifestations also deserve to be cited in the Guide.

The introduction of new types of restaurants foreign and domestic deserve to be nuanced and recognized for their different distinctions, which would avoid misunderstanding. Why honor, as the Swiss Michelin Guide has, the restaurant of the hotel school in Lausanne, as good as it is? Such restaurants have the purpose of training through learning before one becomes a master, besides which have many days of being closed, lower costs, and without major financial constraints.

Such debauched manifestations in general have allowed for the practice of former inspectors still having discreet access or influence with Michelin, being engaged by chefs to improve their ranking in the Guide.

For its part, with the support of industrial sponsors, influenced by its 40% stake in the fashionable guide Fooding, the guide organizes large events around the promoted and demoted restaurants of the year, to which it is recommended that you attend. The fear of suppression or downgrade forces those who are still in the Michelin universe to pledge allegiance to the system in place.

There are now commercial diversifications under the brand name “The Michelin Guide” for the sale of kitchen utensils. The Guide’s investment in the purchase of Bob Parker’s “Wine Advocate” should justify a greater interest in fine wine lists, so why not the release the Guide in great vineyards with or without a DJ.?

Lately, Michelin has become a service provider through its booking platform that is offered to all kinds of restaurants, for which each restaurant pays a commission of two euros for each customer and a monthly fee of 100 euros. Be aware of those many restaurants that have shunned the subscription and found themselves without a Bib Gourmand designation or even being eliminated from the Guide. (See the fate of many provincial restaurants including the Vosges in 2019). https://www.vosgesmatin.fr/edition-d-epinal/2019/02/01/la-facture-indigeste-du-guide-michelin-dans-les-vosges

How is it still possible for a so-called guide inspector to obtain the carte de visite of a government inspector and demand to visit the technical parts of the restaurant such the cold rooms and the wine cellar and to inquire without modesty about the age and the professional career or experience of those responsible for the service? I would be curious to see a so-called inspector do this at the Michelin Tire factory. This kind of suspicious behavior no longer corresponds to our time and does not add anything to the taste of a dish. The Guide must come out of its period of hiding the truth that began in latter part of the past century.

The Future:

The situation has lasted long enough, and the time has come for change not only for the sake of our profession, but also for the Guide. In order to optimize the future of the restaurant profession, it seems imperative to define the rules of the game between the worlds of chefs, clients, inspectors, and the producers of the famous guide.

For this, it is necessary to specify all the required criteria; how one considers the values of our culinary culture and the overseeing of the authenticity of our domestic products along with the competence of the referees. All this would better illuminate the decisions based on a real depth of thought and well-structured explanations leading to collective judgments.

Currently, inspections generate a great deal of economic responsibility. At the upper-echelon restaurants, the brutal removal of a star can ruin and destroy a company having to rely on significant borrowing. Even if the image of the Guide may seem mythical, its collaborators must be aware that they remain mere actors in the realm of gastronomic heritage and realize that everything does not belong to them!

As far as global gastronomy is concerned, the challenge of having universal values around worthwhile products must be omnipresent, faithful to the pleasures of taste, the precision of cooking and the control of textures.

Of course, it is understandable and more than desirable that inspectors can work anonymously and have some flexibility between countries. Customers and restaurant owners need recommendations from a team whose values are still too questionable to be credible, instead possessing the impartiality, professional expertise and knowledge of the know-how of France’s exceptional producers.

As the guide investigates behind the scenes of our institutions, reciprocity would seem obvious. What is the number of inspectors; how many annual inspections are there; what are the skills and knowledge required; what is the training of inspectors and their ability to analyze? Before judging, censoring, rewarding and breaking, it is imperative to master the universal fundamentals of cooking and service. A palace cannot be bought!

Both for food and wine, passing judgement remains the fruit of a long initiation preceded by a true apprenticeship. Do not leave such pronouncements in vagueness or opacity because we are in a society that must aim towards the sharing of values, and at least the Guide must offer a reading accessible to the greatest number. To be credible, better understood and well accepted by the three partners-the customers, the restaurant owner and the inspector- total transparency is imperative! Thus, the Guide must provide accessible and reasoned reading to as many people as possible

It is urgent, Michelin, to act if you do not want to be marginalized by the young French generation. Many young professionals today who having worked in restaurants with Michelin stars now go on their own with their own money to express their passion. Curiously, they do not want to hear about the Michelin system that they worked under with their employers and which no longer makes them dream. This beautiful generation distances itself from a widespread code of silence and its many imaginary and unconvincing dictates. They all wish to develop their status as a maker of emotions and to preserve in their restaurants the quality of freedom that is at the service of the consumer.

To protect the culinary culture of our country, it is very important to fight against the growing global standardization of taste. This should be considered more than ever in the criteria of the Michelin Guide for France. Remember also that the history and reputation of this guide have been made thanks to French cuisine that today deserves much more respect. Together, let’s help our young people to believe in our beautiful gastronomic values that are idealized all over the world and stem from several centuries of the mastery, scientific interweaving and the transmission of savoir-faire.

The right moment has come for the Michelin Company to involve itself in our professional values and to be aware of the good it can bring to French cuisine by protecting, enhancing, mediating it intelligently but most of all by respecting it!

Alain Dutournier

Letter sent to the following recipients: 

Manufacture Pneumatiques Michelin – Messrs. Jean-Dominique Sénard and Florent Menegeaux.

Académie Culinaire de France – President Fabrice Prochasson

Cusiniers de France – President Christian Millet..

Maître Cuisiniers de France – President Christian Têtedoie.

International-Club Les Toque Blanches – President Jean-Pierre Cassagne.

Collège Culinaire de France – Presidents Alain Ducasse and Alain Dutournier.

Eurotoques – Presidents Guillaume Gomez and Michel Roth

UMIH ( Union des Metiers et des Industries de L’Hotellerie)

    President Roland Heguy

SYNHORCAT  (Paris Visitors and Convention Bureau) President Didier Chenet