PARIS (AFP) - The culinary world was reeling from the apparent suicide of Benoit Violier, chef of the "world's best restaurant", casting a cloud over the annual Michelin guide's release on Monday (Feb 1) of its new star ratings in France.
Superchef Alain Ducasse was both a winner and a loser, picking up the highest rating for his restaurant at Paris' swish Plaza Athenee hotel while losing a star for another of his tables in the French capital - the equally opulent Le Meurice hotel.
The merciless pressure top chefs are under was in the spotlight after French-born Violier's death on Sunday at the age of 44, just two months after his Swiss restaurant was named the best in the world.
Several of France's greatest chefs have pulled out of the Michelin ratings in the past, claiming the pressure it puts on them and their staff was too great.
Police were still investigating the circumstances of Violier's death near Lausanne in Switzerland, where he was found with his hunting rifle by his side.
He had retained his three Michelin stars for the Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in Crissier when its Swiss guide was published last November.
He had been planning to attend Monday's Michelin ceremony, said the Swiss news media. Instead, the proceedings began with a minute of silence for him.
The big winners this year were luxury hotels in the French capital, with chef Christian Le Squer bringing a third star to the George V, a stone's throw from Ducasse's Plaza Athenee outpost. But Le Squer told AFP he was not in a mood to celebrate after Violier's death.
"The whole gastronomic world is in tears because we lost a great colleague and friend," he said.
The guide's United States-born international director Michael Ellis praised Ducasse for his "brave decision to come up with a style of cooking around the idea of 'naturalness'" at the hotel, while he described Le Squer as "a real virtuoso".
"Every dish by Christian Le Squer is a real work of art, a shining example of what French gastronomy does best," he added.
But the guide raised eyebrows by stripping a star from another restaurant whose founder also killed himself.
Bernard Loiseau shot himself with his hunting rifle in 2003 after another guide, the Gault & Millau, lowered the rating of his renowned establishment in the Burgundy region.
Loiseau's widow Dominique said she was "shocked and disappointed" by the decision to reduce the Relais Bernard Loiseau to two Michelin stars after 25 years at the top of the table.
Ellis defended his inspectors' judgement. "It was a difficult decision but it is part of the job," he said. "We made numerous visits to be absolutely sure... I hope the Relais Bernard Loiseau gets the star back as soon as possible."
Big name British chef Gordon Ramsay's Trianon restaurant at Versailles was also downgraded, dropping to just one star.
While Ducasse has built a global restaurant brand on the reputation he has won in France, the British-based World Best Restaurant list has been sceptical of his genius.
His Plaza Athenee restaurant languishes at 47th in its rankings, although the alternative French-based La Liste - which claims a more scientific basis for its ranking system - placed his Monaco restaurant Louis XV as the world's 17th best.
Last December, La Liste named Violier's Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville the best of 1,000 top eateries across 48 countries.
Joel Robuchon, who was La Liste's highest rated chef overall, was one of the biggest winners in the new Michelin ratings, going straight in with two stars for his Grande Maison restaurant, which opened in Bordeaux 18 months ago.
Ellis said the guide's feared army of anonymous inspectors notorious for punishing the slightest slippage in its exacting standards, had found French gastronomy to be in rude health.