It's worth reminding oneself that, for a long time, cooks with three Michelin stars were the rock stars of the food scene. They had halos on a par with fashion designers; they were courted like celebrities and renowned for their eccentricity. Their reputation and success were dependent on their awards, which were lent to them for their exquisite delicacies by restaurant guides such as the Michelin Guide or Gault&Millau – the arbiters of good taste. Anyone they awarded top marks to was celebrated as a supernova in the skies of culinary indulgence.
A Michelin star at all costs? So last century. Young, creative chefs look for motivation elsewhere. Which is clearly a recipe for success: their innovative culinary creations are becoming the talk of the town.
Uncompromising ratings lead into a dead end
And that had consequences – primarily, it would appear, for ego and psyche. The extent of this was thrown into sharp relief 16 years ago when Bernard Loiseau, highly decorated French chef and patron of the Côte d’Or in Saulieu, took his own life after being downgraded by a restaurant guide. Sometimes, where awards are concerned, lives are at stake. Or, to resort to a little kitchen-sink psychology, chefs were perceived as so sensitive that a professional imperfection could afflict them so severely as to commit suicide.
No more pressure in the club of vanities
But times have changed. The first to move on was Sébastien Bras, chef at Maison Bras in Laguiole, France, and a representative of the absolute crème de la crème of chefs. The 46-year-old suddenly had enough of feeding the hype around Michelin-starred chefs. With immediate effect, he announced his departure from the club of vanities. He wanted to rethink his life and search for a deeper meaning, which, he said, was extremely important for him personally. Always cooking in pursuit of the highest accolade put him under immense pressure, said the French chef.
New approaches in the high-end cuisine
Sébastien Bras’ courageous and radical step earned him plenty of praise and recognition within the scene. This change to a paradigm that puts an end to “star wars” and elevates one’s own high quality standards to the measure of all things has kicked off a new trend in the restaurant scene. Instead of fussy gimmickry with an elitist atmosphere where gourmet menus are served with stuffy etiquette, they invite guests to sit on rough wooden benches or at a bar that separates the restaurant from the kitchen. Diners are expressly welcomed to become spectators.
Bistronomy is the new concept
It didn’t take long for phrases to be coined describing these casual restaurant concepts, such as casual fine dining or bistronomy – a portmanteau of bistro and gastronomy. The juxtaposition of the finest delicacies with rough earthenware crockery is no coincidence, intending to reflect the easygoing and unconventional philosophy. Excellent culinary creations are the centre of attention, based on fresh, quality ingredients but nevertheless entirely affordable. Yes, that has changed too: instead of forking out enough to buy a family car, some set meals are available for as little as €60 or €70. Sustainability also has an important place at the table: especially where animal products are concerned, the young avant-garde doesn’t do things by halves.
Genuine passion for quality
And – what do you know? The restaurant critics are back on the road. Never before have so many up-and-coming chefs been awarded as in the current Michelin Guide, published at the beginning of the year. Sébastien Bras, the French chef from Maison Bras, has been awarded two stars too, even though he didn’t want them, which he remarked upon with amazement. The moral of the story? Stars or no stars, what really counts is genuine passion for quality ingredients and dedication to create something extraordinarily delicious and unique. And happy guests who recognise the craft of excellent cooking when they see it.