Three Michelin stars: culinary Oscar or poisoned chalice?

A young restaurateur in Reims has joined the ranks of three-starred chefs. So, where's the champagne?

Column LAST UPDATED AT 15:37 ON Mon 24 Feb 2014
Columnist

YOU have to feel sorry for Arnaud Lallement. The 39-year-old French chef was today awarded a coveted third star - Michelin's top accolade - for his fine cooking at the Assiette Champenoise, the restaurant he runs in Reims, the champagne capital of France. 

It followed last year's honour of being named French chef of the year by the Gault&Millau guide and should have been an excuse for considerable rejoicing.

Instead, it leave a bit of a sour taste. 

First, there's no surprise that Lallement's restaurant has joined the ranks of the three-starred elite - because the weekly magazine Le Point last week chose to leak the news ahead of today's publication of the 2014 Michelin Red Guide. 

Second, Gilles Pudlowski, a food critic who writes a column for Le Point, further spoiled the atmosphere by saying Lallement didn't deserve his upgrade from two stars to three – and that if anyone in Reims should have gained a third star, it was Lallement's rival, Philippe Mille at Les Crayeres. 

Third, Pudlowski questioned whether the Michelin Red Guide has lost its authority in recent years – especially now that it is run by a former senior executive in Michelin's tyre division (making tyres, let's not forget, is the core business) called Michael Ellis. 

Ellis's crime - in Pudlowski's view - is not only to be an American  – "Can't they find any French people to run this guide?" he fumed to The Guardian – but he appears to be trying to wrest control of Michelin decision-making from the anonymous restaurant inspectors whose word has always been sacrosanct.

Ellis has said he wants to recognise young chefs. "Is that any reason to forget to crown the unchallengeable chefs?" asks Pudlowski.

Pudlowski's comments could be discounted as the rantings of a man with his own series of avowedly "anti-Michelin" guides to push  – Le Pudlo range. However, he is by no means the first foodie to ask in recent years whether Michelin has lost the plot.

Two things have changed: the rise of social media makes it much easier for diners to spread the word themselves – complete with fuzzy photo of the dish in front of them – rather than trust the say-so of an anonymous restaurant inspector. And the sort of ornate cooking and starched tablecloth establishments favoured by Michelin no longer impress many of those who can afford to visit them.  

Many top chefs still care, of course – especially those who have a star or two and hope to get an upgrade. Gordon Ramsay told recently how he wept openly when his New York establishment, Gordon Ramsay at The London, lost its second star. “It’s a very emotional thing for any chef… It’s like losing a girlfriend,” he told Norwegian chat show host host Fredrik Skavlan. “You want her back.”

But Marco Pierre White has a very different take. He told Waitrose Kitchen editor William Sitwell: “When I was a boy, winning a Michelin star was like winning an Oscar… What does Michelin mean any more? Not much. I don’t think Michelin understands what it’s doing itself. It’s unhinged.”

And Chris Corbin, who with Jeremy King is the brains behind The Wolseley on Piccadilly, told Sitwell: “When it comes to restaurants you want to go to, it [Michelin] hasn’t got a clue.”

Still, it doesn't mean Arnaud Lallement's langoustine royale is not to die for. If you fancy giving the Assiette Champenoise a try, Reims is only a three-hour drive from Calais and a few minutes off the autoroute. If you can get there in time for lunch, there's a E68 menu; in the evening, menus start at E138.

  • L'Assiette Champenoise, 40, Avenue Paul-Vaillant-Couturier, Tinqueux, Reims. Tel 00 33 (0)3 26 84 64 64. 

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Dear Gordon, as you know or should know, in NYC no one gives a F about Michelin stars. What you want is a high Zagat rating -- then people will take notice.