food / travel

For Restaurants, Michelin Stars Bring Heat And High Costs

Hot cuisine
Hot cuisine
Edouard Amoiel

GENEVA â€" 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 â€" 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.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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