Losing a star can break a chef's heart

March 10, 2002|By Dotty Griffith | Dotty Griffith,Knight Ridder / Tribune

In the restaurant world, the "star system" can be a life-and-death proposition.

French chef Alain Zick committed suicide 35 years ago after his restaurant lost a star in the French bible of eating, The Michelin Guide.

At the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, no chef has committed death by chocolate since the restaurant recently lost its fifth star in the Mobil Travel Guide. But executive chef Dean Fearing does acknowledge he was "devastated" by the downgrade -- which leaves Texas without a five-star dining spot for the first time since the Mansion restaurant won its star in 1996.

Just how much does that mystical fifth star matter to a restaurant? According to Mobil officials, "industry insiders" estimate star No. 5 -- now bestowed on only 14 restaurants nationwide -- is worth a 20 percent increase in business. But a number of chefs disagree.

Philadelphia chef-restaurateur Georges Perrier of the famed Le Bec Fin says the losing his fifth Mobil star didn't hurt business, "but it makes a difference in my pride and my ego." After 25 years with five stars, Mr. Perrier was "embarrassed" to lose one in 2000.

The American Automobile Association, Mobil's chief competitor in rating restaurants and hotels, has given the Mansion and the French Room at Dallas' Hotel Adolphus its top award, five diamonds, for 13 years -- two of 43 restaurants in the United States with the honor.

A vocal and influential critic of the Mobil and AAA ratings is John Mariani, who travels the country evaluating restaurants for Esquire and other publications. He describes Mobil as "outdated" and AAA's diamonds as "fuddy-duddy awards."

Traditional hotel restaurants (those with French or continental cuisine) tend to top both lists at the expense of free-standing restaurants with cutting-edge cuisine, he says.

So how do you get five stars? "Be French, be very expensive, be in a hotel, and pretend to be difficult to get into," Mariani writes in his Virtual Gourmet newsletter. Web site: com munities.prodigy.net / food / john.html.

Neither rating system seems to match France's Michelin Guide, considered the final word with travelers and diners. There's really nothing comparable in terms of a national guide to restaurants in the United States.

All things considered, that's probably a good thing for the emotional health of U.S. chefs.

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