Michelin stars sparkle amid Covid-19 for battle-scarred restaurants

Chef Alexandre Mazzia preparing a dish at his restaurant AM in Marseille, southern France. It received its third Michelin star this year to enter the upper echelons of French gastronomy
Chef Alexandre Mazzia preparing a dish at his restaurant AM in Marseille, southern France. It received its third Michelin star this year to enter the upper echelons of French gastronomy PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • The Michelin Guide honoured France's 30th three-star restaurant last Monday as it presented its awards for this year against the backdrop of the coro-navirus pandemic, which has seen chefs forced to close their doors.

The guide promised that no three-star chefs would be demoted as the pandemic rages, with food fans unlikely to book tables anytime soon.

Many chefs fear the French authorities will keep restaurants closed for several more weeks, if not months, following a lockdown last spring and another imposed since October.

As they haemorrhage money, some have pivoted to takeaway or deliveries, adapting menus and often cutting prices, while pressing the government to let them reopen as soon as possible.

"This year, chefs have truly earned it," the guide's boss Gwendal Poullennec said after a ceremony broadcast via Facebook from the Jules Vernes restaurant (one-star) on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

"It's an occasion to shine a spotlight on all these talents, to encourage them and to keep restaurant patrons motivated" while waiting for the crisis to pass, he said.

He added that only a handful of stars would be taken away, for restaurants that had closed or changed their dining concept.

Michelin drew fire for bestowing its verdicts - which can make or break a chef after years of efforts - after a brutal year for the industry.

The rival Best 50 list, based in Britain, cancelled its 2020 ranking last year, while France's La Liste said this month that instead of rankings, it would honour innovative chefs who have persevered in the face of the pandemic.

Social distancing rules forced Michelin to call off the lavish gala ceremony that was to be held in Cognac, south-west France - the first time it was to be held outside Paris.

Alexandre Mazzia, a former pro basketball player born in the Republic of Congo, saw his AM restaurant in Marseille get its third star, this year's only new entrant to the upper echelons of French gastronomy.

Eye-popping compositions like algae popcorn, smoked eel and chocolate, and raspberry sorbet with harissa have made chef Mazzia a critics' darling since he opened in a residential district of the port city in 2014.

"It's a restaurant that transports you, it's very unique and stands out for all sorts of ways," Mr Poullennec said.

Michelin noted the success of the "culinary jewels" Mazzia has been offering from a food truck during the pandemic, with meal baskets sold for just €24 (S$38.50).

While the truck meals are not profitable despite selling up to 200 a day, "the idea is to not be a victim of this lockdown, to keep your head above water and keep the fire alive", he said last year.

France, including Monaco, now counts 30 three-star establishments, the most of any country.

Michelin promoted two restaurants to two stars: Helene Darroze's Marsan in Paris, and La Merise, a restaurant near Strasbourg opened four years ago.

And 54 restaurants got their first stars, including this year's young chefs of the year Mory Sacko, who mixes up French, Japanese and Malian flavours in Paris; and Coline Faulquier, who proposes small-portion but wide-ranging tasting menus in Marseille.

Mr Poullennec insisted that inspectors worked double time and refrained from sacrosanct summer holidays to eat and drink as much as possible when France allowed restaurants to reopen between the spring and autumn lockdowns.

Michelin also brought in inspectors from elsewhere in Europe and Asia to back up the French team.

"This selection has been made with the same serious attention and inspectors were able to judge as many meals as the previous year," he said.

Mr Poullennec, who took over the guide in 2018, has overseen several choices that have raised eyebrows among chefs and foodies.

Last year, Michelin shocked industry insiders by downgrading the Auberge du Pont de Collonges - the oldest three-starred restaurant in the world - after the death of its legendary chef Paul Bocuse.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2021, with the headline Michelin stars sparkle amid Covid-19 for battle-scarred restaurants. Subscribe