GENEVA —Two weeks ago, the Michelin Guide published its latest edition, sprinkling its coveted stars on some of the most deserving restaurants, and withholding them from others. It remains, for its longevity, rigor and selectivity, a bible for any bon vivant and a point of reference for critics and other gastronomy professionals. But it's also a source of life-altering triumph and disappointment for those seeking the highest of recognition.
For those restaurants bestowed their first stars, bookings shoot up as the buzz around the chefs grows louder. But the most difficult part is yet to come: maintaining the level required of regularity, discipline and the sacrifice needed to attain excellence and make it last.
Is this game worth all the fuss? Claude Legras, head of the Le Floris restaurant in Anières, overlooking Lake Geneva, no longer thinks so. He has just given back his two stars after more than 20 years of hard labor. It was "the decision of a lifetime, but now I feel free and at ease," he says.
At the age of 60, Legras reflects: "I don't want the same things. I will do my job differently now, by giving priority to essentials. I was not cooking for enjoyment anymore, but was under constant pressure and stress. Today more than ever, the customers will be my stars."
For smaller independent establishments, costs are high to maintain the standards required by Michelin to hold on to their stars. "The world moves very fast now, and I have the impression people have less and less interest in or time to spend around the dining table," Legras says. "These last years have been very difficult for me."
The remedy? Cut staff by 15% and adapt prices to products on his menus. "I am going to work with mackerel and cod rather than turbot," he says.
But can you win stars by cooking more "humble" fish? Certainly, he says. "It's a growing trend. What I want though is to work without this sword of Damocles hanging over my head."
For Legras, this is a whole new chapter, even if he continues to turn out some of the classic dishes that have earned him an international reputation, like his legendary foie gras sweetmeat with truffles.
Thirty-five years spent over the oven has not made Legras more confident. He is weary, obliged to run a difficult daily routine often distorted by reality TV programs devoid of authenticity — and there is constant anxiety. "What then is the point of all this?" he asks. "Sure, we all have a bit of an ego, a clear need to be recognized, and that is how we are programmed from the start."
In spite of everything, the man named one of France's Best Craftsmen ("Meilleur Ouvrier de France") is not bitter. "I have had some incredible moments thanks to the Michelin Guide. It opened doors for me. My career has always rested on conveying pleasure. Now, I want to have fun for the next 10 years."
No room for error
A different perspective comes from a young chef from Carouge, south of Geneva. Just 32 years old and supremely motivated, Yoann Caloué became the chef at Le Flacon three years ago, succeeding Serge Labrosse, and being sure to keep the establishment's position on the Michelin Guide.
The star acquired during the Labrosse era has been honorably maintained, but Caloué says it "demands of me constancy and regularity. The difficulty is in repeating perfectly 100 times what was done impeccably once." The chef has not modified his menu following the unexpected reward: no sense in adding caviar and lobster just to keep his star.
"I cook this way for myself. When it is time to serve, I don't think that there might be an inspector in the dining room. I think of the standards we have set for ourselves, and the customers who honor us by coming," he says. "They are the ones who must be happy. Still, that does not give us the right to make mistakes."
Le Flacon is not a starred restaurant, strictly speaking. It breaks codes and dusts off old genres. Before media speculations and possible repercussions should it lose a star, it remains calm. Caloué admits it would have an impact on "our customers, but no more than on our team. A star is never won alone, and if we were to lose it one year, we would do everything to win it back the next year."
Caloué, however, is clear that he has no interest in seeking a second star. The investments and obligations that would entail are too onerous: changing the way the dining room is set up, raising prices, taking on another sommelier and more cooks, and changing all the tableware.
"It could mean losing my restaurant's soul just to please my ego," says Caloué. "I don't want that. But if another star were to come one day to reward the fruits of our labor, we would certainly be very proud."
With or without stars, all agree that the pleasure of cooking remains the most important ingredient for any chef.