This year, for the first time in the history of the Michelin star system for French restaurants, the awards ceremony was held not in Paris but in the town of Cognac. By now, everyone around the world knows the results. Altogether, two chefs won three new stars, six won two and 41 picked up their first star. The big news was that the restaurant Plénitude in Paris and its chef Arnaud Donckele jumped from no stars at all to three stars in one fell swoop in its first year, something that has happened only once in 30 years. The only other new three-star award went to Dimitri Droisneau at La Villa Madie in Cassis (click here for the full list of winners).
The move to Cognac was indicative of the august guide’s efforts to be more relevant, closer to French terroir and less Paris-centric after years of criticism for secrecy and insularity.
The ceremony this year was surprisingly fast-moving (only a small number of winners were given a chance to speak), although the host’s presentation had that canned feeling we have grown used to from awards ceremonies. What was truly heartwarming was the reaction of the winning chefs, many of whom were moved to tears and all of whom made a point of thanking their teams, even when they were too overwhelmed to say much else. While some may be superstars, there is something humble and unpretentious about most of them. A few examples are the warm and modest Pierre Gagnaire, the soft-spoken Kei Kobayashi and the down-to-earth Philippe Etchebest, star of the reality show Cauchemar en Cuisine, the French version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare.
That the guide is trying to change is clear. Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, admitted at the awards ceremony that “there are not enough women in the selection.” And the guide now gives out “green stars” (six this year, for a total of 87) for “sustainable gourmet experiences.”
Poullennec’s point about the lack of women chefs is well taken. When all the starred chefs present gathered onstage at the end of the ceremony, it was disheartening to see only a small handful of women in the white-jacketed crowd and, even worse, only one Black face.
Michelin inspectors have their methods, for better or worse. I can’t prescribe a remedy for this lack of diversity, but wouldn’t it be great if the awards truly became more inclusive and stopped looking like a good-old-white-boys club? A start has been made. Let’s hope that the chubby Michelin Man, who couldn’t get much whiter or more male, will get the message.
And let’s hope that the guide’s inspectors are looking at the new wave of excellent cheffes in Paris alone, many of whom we have reviewed here, among them Mélanie Serre at Louis Vins and Laëtitia Bret at L’Esquisse.
It was a pleasure to see chefs being rewarded for the very hard work that goes into succeeding in this profession. Marcel Ravin of Blue Bay in Monaco, one of the two-star winners, left his home and family in Martinique when he was only 17 to come to Europe to realize his promise to himself that he would one day win Michelin stars, while Xavier Beaudiment of the two-star Le Pré, after working for a top restaurant in Paris, lost out on a job in Chicago because the 9/11 terrorist attacks made it difficult to get a work visa. He ended up back in his hometown working his way up from the bottom to be able to open his gourmet restaurant, which has two stars.
Fifty-five French restaurants were downgraded this year, many of them because they had closed or changed chefs or owners. There are currently 627 starred restaurants in the country.
As the first non-Parisian host of the awards ceremony, the charming town of Cognac was strutting its stuff. The three-year-old Chais Monnet, a spectacular five-star hotel and spa created from former wine sheds connected by new structures, hosted many of the visiting 200 chefs and 100 or so journalists, as well as the huge after-party. Visitors were squired around town to visit the major Cognac houses – Courvoisier, Martell, Rémy Martin and Hennessy – for gourmet meals and visits to the vineyards, distilleries and cellars, where they learned how cognac is made, from the grape to the bottle, and tasted plenty of the product.
Now that the party’s over, the chefs are heading back to their kitchens to work hard to merit their awards and invent new dishes for those of us lucky enough to get to taste them.Favorite