Recently, I saw a French documentary from 2010 on four Michelin-starred restaurants.

The film-makers went behind the scenes to examine how Michelin stars change the nature of a restaurant.

Whilst we all know that Michelin stars indicate pricey meals, there are several reasons for this.

La Guerre des Chefs Etoilés au Guide Michelin (‘The war of Michelin-starred chefs’) explains all:

A summary follows. I have also used other sources, as indicated below.

How it all began

Wikipedia explains that, when the Michelin Guide made its debut in 1900 initially only listed garages, petrol stations and Paris hotels for the travelling motorist. It was free of charge, seen to not only help the motorist but also to act as a marketing tool for Michelin tyres.

By the time of the Great War — during which Michelin suspended publication — the tyre company produced guides for several European countries, two North African nations and, in English, one for France.

In 1920, André Michelin visited one of his tyre merchants. He was surprised to see a stack of Michelin guides propping up a workbench. André and his brother Édouard decided changes needed to be made. They decided to charge for the guide, expand hotel listings to include those outside of Paris and add a restaurant section. Anonymous inspectors reviewed the restaurants — a policy still in use today.

The new listings proved popular among those who bought the guide. In 1926, the Michelin brothers decided to give one star to the top fine dining establishments. By 1931, they had expanded the stars to three:

  • 1 Michelin star: “A very good restaurant in its category” (“Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”)
  • 2 Michelin stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (“Table excellente, mérite un détour”)
  • 3 Michelin stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (“Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”).[4]

For many aspiring, serious chefs, the Michelin Guide is the only one that counts. Earning the first star is gruelling. Losing a star or stars has caused chefs to commit suicide.

It’s no laughing matter.

Georges Blanc

The French documentary began with the story of Georges Blanc, who has expanded his three-star restaurant into an empire.

The Blanc family and Michelin stars go back a long way.

Originally, Jean Louis — Georges’s great-grandfather — was a soft-drink maker and coal merchant in Vonnas, which is located in Bresse, a region famous for its poultry and situated near Burgundy and Franche-Comté. This family business continued through the generations until 1975.

They also owned an inn. When Jean Louis’s son Adolphe married Élisa Gervais in 1902, she began cooking for the inn’s customers. She specialised in local and regional favourites.

In 1929, Élisa became the first woman to earn a Michelin star. From that point on, she became famous throughout France and was known as Mère Blanc. In 1931, Michelin awarded her a second star, never lost.

In 1934, Adolpe and Élisa’s son Jean married Paulette Tisserand, the daughter of the local baker and pastry maker. Élisa took her daughter-in-law under her wing and taught her all the family recipes.

In 1943, Paulette gave birth to Georges, who runs the family business today. When Élisa died at home at the age of 66 in 1949, Paulette took over the kitchen.

Georges succeeded his mother in 1968. By 1970, he began implementing changes to the old favourites in accordance with new dining trends. He reduced the amount of butter and cream, which appealed to diners looking for lighter fare.

He transformed the comfortable inn into an upmarket establishment.

He also started to build a wine collection, which includes some of the very best vintages. Georges Blanc employs eight sommeliers, each of whom is assigned to a small number of tables in the restaurant to provide truly personalised advice and service.

The documentary showed the head sommelier going into the cave and the ancient bottles of wine, some of which are more than a century old. Today, there are 130,000 bottles and 3,000 different wines available to customers. The head sommelier told the film-makers that he felt a great deal of responsibility in maintaining the cave for his successor and the generations to come. It was as if we were seeing a high priest in his inner sanctum. He spoke solemnly in hushed tones.

Georges earned his third Michelin star in 1981. He retains it today.

That same year, he had a vineyard planted just outside of Vonnas. In 1990, he began buying up properties around his restaurant and created his own village within a village. Among other properties, he has an inn resembling that of his ancestors’, other hotels, a spa, an amusement park, a heliport and a gift shop which, among other things, sells the family’s soft drinks. He told the film-makers that, on any given Saturday, the gift shop alone makes €2,000 – €3,000 a day.

In short, Georges Blanc is rolling in it and presides over a multi-million euro local empire.

His restaurant has had the longest tenure of holding three Michelin stars — and Michelin stars of any sort.

Understandably, he would want to preserve the family legacy, but his desire for an ever-expanding empire made him look greedy.

Charles from Montpellier

Charles (no surname or restaurant name provided) from Montpellier in the south of France had just earned his first Michelin star when the film-makers met him.

He was in the process of getting things just right in order to keep it. That involved several things in addition to cooking.

Charles explained how he spent a few thousand euros on new salt and pepper mills and wine glasses, which he was unpacking when the film crew arrived. In order to meet customers’ and Michelin’s expectations, glassware was upgraded to crystal. Imperfect salt and pepper mills were to be replaced by new, flawless ones.

He said he would now need floral arrangements twice a week, which would cost thousands of euros per year.

The film also showed him interviewing a new maître d’. The candidate spoke several languages, including English, and had worked in other Michelin star establishments. Charles said he and his staff would need an English speaker because they were rather deficient in that area. He expected a lot of tourists from abroad to dine in his restaurant.

The reservation book was already filling up quickly. Charles showed the film-makers the number of days where they were full for months in advance. Newcomers for lunch that day mentioned they’d read about his star in the local newspaper. Long-standing customers were also dining that day. One man asked when prices were going to go up. Charles replied, ‘Not yet’.

After the man left, he told the camera crew that prices would go up the following year, but he did not want to alienate his existing customer base who had been the lifeblood of the business up until then.

Charles had no background in the restaurant industry. His father is a surgeon who expected him to work in a profession. Charles read law at university, but his heart was always with creating great food that made people happy.

He knew that he was spending a lot of money on his already elegant restaurant but was sure he could recoup his costs and more within the first year of having his Michelin star.

His prices, we were told, would increase by 30% the following year.

Bernard Loiseau

As I mentioned earlier, when it comes time for that coveted third Michelin star, a head chef is under a lot of pressure, mostly self-inflicted.

It is not uncommon for a chef to earn the third star then begin planning his succession for retirement. He worries that standards in the kitchen or in front of house might, somehow, slip, causing him to begin again with two.

Other chefs can be driven to suicide.

Bernard Loiseau was one of them.

The documentary showed only his picture. I have seen another French programme which had an in-depth interview with his widow Dominique, who runs his three-star restaurant La Côte d’Or and is president of Bernard Loiseau SA, a collection of fine dining establishments.

Loiseau began his career by working for the Troisgros brothers in their restaurant not far from Lyon, La Maison Troisgros. It has held three Michelin stars for 30 consecutive years.

In 1972, Loiseau began working for another notable chef, Claude Verger. He purchased La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, located in the Franche-Comté-Burgundy region. Verger appointed Loiseau head chef and the rest was history.

Loiseau purchased the restaurant from Verger in 1982.

In 1991, Loiseau earned his third Michelin star.

He seemed to be going from strength to strength until 2003, when rival guide Gault et Millau docked him two points that year. With a rating of 17/20, Loiseau, ever the conscientious perfectionist, began worrying about what the Michelin inspectors would say.

Loiseau was also prone to mood swings and depression. As a few French newspapers seemed to agree with Gault et Millau, he became increasingly anxious.

He was also counting up the cost of the potential loss of the third star, saying that he would lose 40% of his business, according to a posthumous account in The Telegraph. He was also the only French chef listed on the stock exchange and had feared he had over-invested.

Loiseau had so convinced himself that his third star was going that, on February 24, 2003, he finished lunch service, drove home and shot himself.

In the end, Michelin made no changes. Loiseau had retained his third star.

His widow said in the documentary I saw that, after a brief mourning period, she felt duty bound to take the reins and move forward. She actually told the interviewer in English:

The show must go on.

She and the new head chef, who had worked there for several years, worked hard to keep the three stars, which they do to this day.

I couldn’t help but admire Dominique’s beauty, given the loss of the love of her life in such tragic circumstances. She was also very elegantly dressed and carried herself well.

Alain Senderens

Alain Senderens is one three-star chef who bucked the system and said non to Michelin. He gave an interview to the film-makers of La Guerre des Chefs Etoilés au Guide Michelin.

Bernard Loiseau’s story will ever be remembered by older top chefs, many of whom were his friends, and foodies alike.

In 1985, Senderens held three stars. He took over the kitchen at Lucas Carton in the heart of Paris, near La Madeleine. He earned a third star for the restaurant in 2005.

With Loiseau’s tragedy in the back of his mind and growing increasingly disgusted with the restaurant expenses that go with Michelin stars, he soon contacted the guide to say he was handing the stars back.

He told the film-makers that it was a symbolic gesture but one that essentially told Michelin to stay away.

Senderens said he wanted more people to enjoy his cuisine. That meant lower prices. So he got rid of silverware and replaced it with stainless steel cutlery. He did away with the expensive flowers and had a lighting fixture installed which cast pretty butterfly and floral stencils on the tablecloths and the backlit mirrors. He gestured towards the table and walls:

You want flowers? There they are. They change colour every 15 minutes.

He was able to cut menu prices dramatically. He also invested a lot of time in training his successor how to maintain the same quality and consistency in all the dishes.

Sendersens retired in 2013.

The main dining room of Lucas Carton has now been fully restored to the belle époque style. It lives on.

One wonders whether the new chef Julien Dumas will open the doors to Michelin.