Earlier this week, lauded French chef Sébastien Bras, son of Michel Bras, revealed that he wants to “give back” the three Michelin stars he and his father have maintained for nearly two decades at their pioneering restaurant Le Suquet à Laguiole. He wants out of the red guide book and to be done with one of the highest honors a restaurant can achieve.
According to AFP (via Le Monde), Sébastien Bras is over the pressure and expectations that come along with the three stars. “This was a beautiful challenge and a source of great satisfaction... but there’s a huge pressure as a result of our three-star status, which we’ve held since 1999,” he said. “Today, we want to proceed with a free spirit and without stress, to offer a cuisine and service that represents that spirit and our land.”
Like so many tropes in contemporary chef culture, the odd business of “giving back” Michelin stars seems to trace back to Marco Pierre White. White — the archetypal rockstar chef, known as much for his temper and iconic portrait as for his prowess in the kitchen — was the youngest chef to ever achieve the coveted three-star status for his work at Restaurant Marco Pierre White. And then, about five years later, in 1999, he famously renounced them and retired from cooking at his eponymous restaurant.
“[T]he people who gave me Michelin stars had less knowledge than me. You have to place a value on something that is given to you: that’s why it was so easy for me to walk away. They had no value for me,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “The day I no longer wanted to be behind my stove, I put my hands up and said: ‘I’m out of here.’ It’s all or nothing with me. I could not live a lie.”
Others followed suit. In 2005, Alsace-based chef Philippe Gaertner gave back his stars. A few months later, the New York Times reported that he “wrote to Michelin to say that he was changing his menu and would no longer compete to keep the star status that had been in the family since the late 1930s.”
Paris chef Alain Senderens also gave up his stars that year, opting to close and revamp the three-star Lucas Carton. “I feel like having fun,” Senderens told the New York Times. “I don’t want to feed my ego anymore. I am too old for that. I can do beautiful cuisine without all the tra-la-la and chichi, and put the money into what’s on the plate.”
There’s a chance the revamp would have meant lost stars anyway. That’s the funny thing about how Michelin works: Chefs don’t earn Michelin stars, restaurants do — and that makes “giving back” stars a tricky proposition. If a chef gives the restaurant a new name and concept, the Michelin stars it carries ostensibly disappear; “The restaurant formerly known as Expensive Tasting Menu, which maintained three Michelin stars for X amount of years,” would be the most accurate way to describe it.
That’s the inverse of nearly every James Beard Award category, which bestows medals not to restaurants, but to chefs. Though the medals do acknowledge a chef’s work at a specific restaurant, he or she is still a “James Beard Award winner” if they change jobs or open new restaurants. Likewise, a restaurant that wins a James Beard Award as a Best New Restaurant or Outstanding Restaurant stays a “James Beard Award winning restaurant” forever.
But a restaurant’s Michelin status isn’t fixed. And there’s the rub. That restaurants are constantly up for reevaluation is great for users of the guide — it makes the guide more reliable and accurate, in theory. But for chefs, it can mean immense pressure to maintain a certain level for fear of slipping down the ranks.
Those stars also, unsurprisingly, affect diners’ expectations, for better or worse. In 2011, chef Olivier Douet gave back the Michelin star his restaurant Le Lisita earned. At the time, Le Lisita was the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice. But Douet wanted to transform it into a brasserie. Per the Telegraph, Douet was motivated by “the onerous demands” that come with a star. “In a starred restaurant, there is one waiter for five to six people. With a brasserie, a waiter can look after 20 to 30 customers.”
In 2014, chef Frederick Dhooge of ‘t Huis van Lede in East Flanders gave up his star. He revealed his decision on the restaurant’s Facebook page, noting that he did not want his Michelin star or his points in the Gault-Millau restaurant guide: “The essence of the kitchen in ‘t Huis van Lede lies with the product, prepared according to the classical way and with respect for our own gourmet traditions and values. We noticed that this is not always understood by a group of customers that expect a spectacle of stars and points kitchen.”
Later that year, Spain-based chef Julio Biosca gave back the two Michelin stars his restaurant Casa Julio earned. Biosca said he had a problem with “the whole world that is generated around [Michelin stars],” especially the self-created expectations: “When everyone is telling you you’re the best, when you don’t get your second Michelin star, you’re pissed off.”
Amidst all these high-profile give-backs, it’s easy to lose sight of just how little a chef can actually change about a Michelin guide. There’s nothing short of closing or deliberately making the restaurant terrible that a chef can do to get rid of a restaurant’s stars. As Michelin Guide international director Michael Ellis told Vanity Fair in 2015: “‘You can agree with it or you cannot, but you can’t give it back. That’s not an issue.’ The giving back of stars — that’s ‘kind of an urban myth.’”
Still, chefs continue to dramatically reject their Michelin status. While they can’t force the guide to remove their restaurant from published books, they can close and reopen under new names. That’s what chef Karen Keyngaert told Munchies she planned to do this year, after her Flanders restaurant received a Michelin star she describes as “in these economic times... more of a curse.”
With his announcement this week, Sébastien Bras is arguably the highest-profile chef to renounce Michelin stars since Marco Pierre White. Perhaps due to his stature, Michelin is reportedly considering the request, though as Michelin executive committee member Claire Dorland-Clauzel points out, “the guide isn’t made for restaurateurs, but for customers.”
Michelin prognosticator and Eater NY chief critic Ryan Sutton believes the guide should not — and likely will not — honor the request. “Just imagine the precedent this would set if Michelin takes back the stars,” he says. “What would be the incentive for any restaurant not happy with their Michelin rating, or fearful of a downgrade, not to send back their stars as well? Assessing restaurants, whether it occurs as traditional journalism in the form of criticism, or as well-respected guidebook with various ratings, or as a yearly SEO-optimized listicle, is a service to consumers, not restaurants.”
If Bras, and any other chef who wants to offload some stars, is serious, he might need to close — and pray the inspectors don’t like his next project.