French furore as Michelin guide ends reign of world's oldest three-star restaurant

Henry Samuel
The Michelin guide has sparked a furore among French chefs and critics for docking Paul Bocuse's famed restaurant in Lyon a third star - REUTERS

France’s culinary establishment was at boiling point on Friday after the Michelin guide docked one of three stars from the flagship restaurant of the late chef Paul Bocuse - dubbed “the pope” of Gallic gastronomy and who died two years ago.

The Auberge du Pont de Collonges, near Lyon in southeastern France, was the oldest three-starred restaurant in the world, and had maintained the top accolade without interruption since 1965.

"Monsieur Paul", as Bocuse was known, died aged 91 on January 20, 2018, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

He was one of the most illustrious French chefs of all time famously saying "I love butter, cream, wine” while lightening heavy traditional cuisine with his Nouvelle Cuisine revolution in the 1970s, and arguably becoming the world’s first global celebrity cook.

However, Michelin Guide announced that today his establishment "remained excellent but no longer at the level of three stars" and will have only two in the 2020 edition of the French food “bible”.

Paul Bocuse's restaurant had held three stars since 1965 Credit: Laurent Cipriani /AP

Michelin boss Gwendal Poullenec visited the restaurant in person to deliver the news.

He later told BFM TV that “Michelin stars are not inherited, they are merited”. “Three stars are awarded for a year, not for life,” he said adding: “A chef’s aura is not what decides the value of (a restaurant’s) recommendation”.

Mr Bocuse's family and his kitchen team said they were "upset" by the decision, particularly as the restaurant had just finished an overhaul of its interior and menu, dubbing the changes "tradition in motion”.

"The chefs have reworked the dishes. They have been refining them for more than a year, evolving them while retaining their original DNA and taste," the restaurant's manager Vincent Le Roux told a regional newspaper recently.

The restaurant is scheduled to reopen on January 24 after three weeks of renovations - three days before the official launch of the latest Michelin guide.

Gérard Collomb, mayor of Lyon, called the drop a “huge disappointment”. “Paul Bocuse will always have three stars in our hearts,” he wrote.

News of the downgrade prompted dismay, even fury among some peers and critics.

Chef Marc Veyrat slammed Michelin's decision to dock Paul Bocuse's restaurant a third star as "pathetic" Credit: AP/Michel Euler 

Celebrity chef Marc Veyrat, who recently lost a court case against Michelin over a lost third star, described the move as “pathetic”. Mr Veyrat, who claimed the guide had wrongly accused him of putting English cheddar in a souffle, said Michelin’s latest move was nothing short of “an assault on French cultural heritage”.

Food critic Perico Legasse said the guide's decision was “suicidal” and tantamount to “the archbishop of Paris setting fire to Notre Dame given how Paul Bocuse epitomised the glory of Michelin”.

He slammed the move as a shameless bid by Michelin to create “media buzz” to shore up falling sales and influence in the face of global competition, adding: “Michelin is dead, long live Paul Bocuse.”

But others have suggested the downgrade had been on the cards for some time. Franck Pinay-Rabaroust, who runs the Atabula food website, told the Telegraph in September that the Bocuse third star could be for the chop.  

“Michelin remains the absolute reference for top chefs. Those who claim they don't care are no doubt lying," he said.

“But frankly there are incoherences with some restaurants undeserving of three stars and others that deserve more.

Michelin’s 38-year old boss, who took over in 2018, had made it clear he wanted to iron out such discrepancies and that previously “untouchable” temples of French cuisine could pay the price, he correctly predicted.

Michelin's decision has sparked fury among some culinary peers of the late Paul Bocuse Credit: EMMANUEL FOUDROT /Reuters

According to Michelin, restaurants are selected on four criteria: the quality of the products, the expertise of the chef, the originality of the dishes and consistency throughout the meal and across seasons.

One star signifies "a very good restaurant", two stars are "excellent cooking that is worth a detour", and three stars mean "exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey".

Britain has just five three-starred eateries while France has 27. Some critics say the cost of maintaining Michelin stars is becoming untenable and leads to inflated prices.

A handful of chefs have asked to have them relinquished due to stress - most recently Sebastien Bras, chef at Le Suquet in 2018.