jeudi 18 juin 2009

Dead Chefs Society

De Les Prés d'Eugénie

(Guérard's garden)

"1,2,3... Soleil!" is a kids’ game : they’re all running around but need to freeze when the master of the game says “1,2,3.. Soleil!”. Kids who are still moving when the phrase is pronounced are eliminated until there is only one left. I’ve come to believe that this is actually the game most restaurants are playing with the Michelin stars: at three, and sometimes a bit before, they just freeze, stop moving. I don’t know if, as some say, the Michelin “system” is to blame, but apparently, Michelin doesn’t change your rating if nothing changes, and so too many chefs actually are forever stuck in the time of their third star, condemned to the eternal damnation of imitating themselves until the end of days.
De Le Relais Bernard Loiseau

I hate to say it, but I must recognize that the last years of Bernard Loiseau were pretty much like that. Openly freaking out at the idea of losing the third star on which all his business, life, and apparently will to live relied, he stand there explaining that he would from now on stick to his “concept” and not experiment again. It would be only three ingredients in the plate, no cream or flour, etc. No more cooking, just formulas and recipes. Yet in the years before, Loiseau was still full on inventing, experimenting, and demonstrating his actual genius, with all sorts of recipes, of specials of the day. The vegetable menu in particular was where he was inspired, free, and wonderful. But in the last years, the genius only survived here and there, overshadowed by a henceforth systematic approach.
De Guy Savoy

(A Savoy dish that could have been great)

God knows I also love his buddy Savoy, but the same is true of him too – I remember the first time I went to Savoy, before the third star (and everybody was making fun of Michelin for having missed that boat when it sailed, probably ten more years earlier). There was a finesse, a magic to his food then, that is hard to imagine for the current visitor. Luckily that great entrepreneur designed a restaurant experience that is not about exceptional food but about an exceptional time, so that I still, often, recommend Savoy.
De l'Arpège

(This too is a great dish... most of the time)

I could go on and on. Even a very free man like Alain Passard, or a very focused and stable one like Bernard Pacaud, have in recent years turned into self-imitators, sometimes to the point of caricature. Inattentive eaters, or those you could call “concept-eaters” didn’t notice anything. They say it’s as wonderful (or as pointless) as it ever was, or they say that it’s not good anymore because it’s out of fashion. Some of them, being regulars, having a relationship with the staff, indeed still make extraordinary meals. And some anonymous clients also sometimes get lucky. After all, there’s a reason those chefs are as famous as they are, and sometimes it shows. During my last meal at l’Ambroisie, the six slices of carrots on the side of I can’t even remember what where truly divine.
De Les Prés d'Eugénie

I felt that way when I finally visited Michel Guérard’s Les Prés d’Eugénie. Granted, my expectations were unreasonably high, becauseI knew from reading and watching TV that Guérard was one of the great chefs in history. Our meal was very perfect, exquisite would probably the best word to describe it. However, only the amuse and the lobster dish were here to attest Guérard’s particular and impressive genius. The lobster, in particular, is plunged alive in Armagnac, marinated for over a day, and then served as a carpaccio with an Armagnac gelée. This was nothing short of brilliant, as were the “reconstituted” lobster legs on the side. Everything else, exquisite and pleasant as it was, felt familiar, easy to imitate, and even to enhance.
De L'Auberge de la Ferme aux Grives

Incidentally, Guérard’s bistrot, l’Auberge de la Ferme aux Grives, was revoltingly expensive crap – bad ingredients, including bread and wine, poor preparations, Disneyland setting, and a 46€ mandatory prixfixe to which you should add 13€ for a bottle of water.
De Chapel

(Alain Chapel's ghost... en gelée)

In fact, Guérard felt pretty much like Chapel or Loiseau today: the namesake chefs at those two excellent restaurants are both dead. But they remain excellent restaurants through which you can imagine the original genius, pretty much like you imagine what music actually was like when you listen to very old recordings. It’s the same feeling at Passard’s, Pacaud’s, Guérard’s, or Robuchon’s... with the possible advantage that, those chefs being alive and sometimes there (which does not always mean non-absent…), maybe you have a higher likelihood to experience their actual genius.
De Ledoyen

After all, those are places where you’re paying for the possibility of a wonderful meal (or course) rather than for the actual meal. Come to think of it, it’s exactly what happens with other non profitable arts, like theatre, classical music or opera. And while we have to accept that wonderful moments can never be guaranteed, this, more than the stellar prices, is what make those places really exclusive: it’s one thing to have to pay 100eur for an entrée, it’s another thing to have to have five or ten 300€ meals in order to experience the true wonder. Yes, the rest of the time, those restaurants are still good (most of them) – but they’re not delivering on the promise of a unique, life-enriching experience.

6 commentaires:

Michael a dit…

As you can see on my blog, I was at Pic and Lameloise last week. Both are extremely expensive three-Michelin-star restaurants. Both were full midweek. Crisis? What crisis? There was a lot of gray hair and enough neckties, including mine, to make you uncomfortable. There must be a real generation gap. I don’t think many of us were there with our credit cards ready for “the promise of a unique, life-enriching experience.” Nor were our expectations high from watching TV. We were happy with our evenings and our meals even though they were not “perfect, exquisite.” Actually, the closest I have come to that in the last twelve months was also Les Prés d’Eugénie, and that includes noma, Arzak and Momofuku Ko. It was the execution of another great performance of the classic, with a touch of modern, which made us happy. It was like Netrebko and Villazon in La Traviata.
The Michelin star system is easily criticised. I have written very negative blogposts on many two-starred restaurants. But as Paul Bocuse said after Bernard Loiseau’s suicide: without the guides who would ever come and pay the prices we have to charge?

Julot-les-pinceaux a dit…

Hi Michael, and thanks for being such a regular reader. I should start by saying that gray hair and neck tie do not make me uncomfortable. Another clarification is that I am a big supporter of the Michelin system. But indeed the question of whether a top restaurant is "the promise of a unique, life-enriching experience" is central here. I am on the side of those who think it is or should be. I suspect that your calling it a generation gap is a euphemism for an income gap. For people like me and people I'm trying to help, spending 400eur on a meal that is just pleasant does not make sense. For others, going to top restaurants is a part of their lifestyle, and they consider it as such.

Anonyme a dit…


Could you clarify your thinking a little for me (I'm feeling kind of slow):

At the establishments you cite, is it:

a. the dishes are not as good as they used to be because the technique and/or execution have gone off; or is it

b. the dishes are not as good because they/and or the ideas behind them have not changed in 30 years?

I'm particularly thinking of Bocuse, where nothing has changed in decades and yet the execution remains consistently flawless. If one is prepared for the old-fashioned nature of the cooking, I think it's still one of the most satisfying meals in France.



Julot-les-pinceaux a dit…

Hi Robert,

I am personally a big fan of Bocuse, and to me his restaurant is alive and well. What I mean what I wrote: that some chefs, at some point, start imitating themselves instead of trying to make their best. I guess this would be closer to the a. you suggest but it has as much to do with the lack of inspiration and passion than it has with technical flaws.

Also, I personally think that ideas in cuisine do not matter, that, as Loiseau used to say, there are only two categories of chefs: the good ones and the bad ones. So I have no issue with "cooking outdated", like Besson, Bocuse or Rostang do. I have an issue with cooking without conviction, with cooking badly.

Anonyme a dit…

Thank you for the reply.

There is nothing less appetizing to me than a plateful of "ideas."

I've gotten to that point in life where I don't consider "old-fashioned" a criticism. Good cooking doesn't become bad cooking just because it is no longer cutting age.

Greatly enjoy reading your postings,


Julian Teoh a dit…


I think your article reads not so much as a criticism of the Michelin system (though it could be so read) but as a criticism of some chefs who bind themselves to playing by those rules.

But at the same time, as a business and increasingly as top-flight restaurants become tourist destinations and fetish houses, there must be a strong incentive to maintain the dishes that won the chef his renown in the first place. For example, I would suggest that if someone flew to the US to eat at the French Laundry, there might be some angst if he was not served the "oysters and pearls" and salmon cornets.

This may well have its minus points, but I would be interested to discuss where the line is drawn between faithful cooking of one's classic dishes (I presume this is where you believe Bocuse fits in) and poorly cooked imitations. From your article, it appears that Guerard's dishes had either deteriorated from when they were invented or they were perhaps never that good in the first place, but had been preserved in that particular snapshot of history?