Sporting chef whites, Sebastian Bras, one of France’s most acclaimed and celebrated chefs, posted a video on Facebook last month. In the video, he announced his desire to relinquish the three Michelin stars his restaurant, Le Sequet, was issued in 1999. The restaurant, located in the idyllic village of Laguiole in southern France, won the honour at a time when his father, Michel Bras, was at the helm. Arguably the republic’s most revered chef, Michel, is regarded as the progenitor of vegetable-centric haute cuisine, creating painting-like dishes with herbs and edible flowers that won Le Sequet the three stars — the highest accolade of the Michelin guide.
One of only 27 French chefs to hold up the coveted three stars, Sebastian, who has retained the stars since he took over from his father 10 years ago, has cited the load of carrying them as the reason to be excluded from the ranking from next year. In a bid to “give new meaning to my life… and redefine what is essential,” he has asked to be allowed to, “proceed with a free spirit and in serenity away from the world of rankings, without tension.”
The duress accompanying the three-star status, in later interviews given by Sebastian, was attributed to surprise visits by anonymous Michelin inspectors who arrive to reassess restaurants two-three times in a year. “Michelin is elusive. You don’t know when someone will come to judge your dishes and the loss of a star can have severe effects on the restaurant,” says Sriram Aylur, chef, Quilon, London, who clinched a Michelin star in 2008 and has retained it since. But he is quick to state that “In France, Michelin stars are taken more seriously than in other countries. They tend to be more emotional about it. Of course, it’s special when one achieves it and with each successive star, the responsibility increases. It becomes even more problematic with three stars because it puts you in a very exclusive club. It almost becomes a status symbol. So much so, that some can’t do without it,” he adds.
“I have seen people have nervous breakdowns, restaurants shut down, families getting broken for those stars,” says Atul Kochhar, referencing French chef Bernard Loiseau’s suicide in 2003. It was widely speculated that rumours of his restaurant, La Cote d’Or, losing one of its stars had pushed him to shoot himself. Kochhar’s restaurant, Benares, in London received a Michelin star in 2007.
But how do those who have also been conferred the much coveted stars ensure that it doesn’t get too hot in the kitchen? “I say this with utmost humility, I have never felt the pressure. It’s not based on guess-work, so there is no pressure. We like to delight our customers and if at all, that’s where the pressure comes from,” says Aylur, emphasising that the eminence and financial gain that the rankings afford cannot be ruled out. He witnesses an increase in patronage from Continental Europe after he was bestowed with the honour.
“The Michelin is a re-affirmation of our hard work. However, there is always pressure, irrespective of a star. The additional pressure that the star may put on restaurants or its chefs is of the good kind. It encourages you to do better. But then every chef has his own journey and I respect Bras’s decision,” says Manjunath Mural of The Song of India in Singapore, that was awarded a Michelin star last year.
Kochhar notes that aside from the stress of being judged anonymously, three Michelin stars could also be heavy to carry, given the financial burden of retaining them, which includes taking responsibility for the livelihoods that are attached to the business. However, he insists that the key to sustaining success is understanding what took you to it. “We did not start cooking well after we got the Michelin. We got the star because we were doing a good job. You can’t wake up in the morning wanting a Michelin star or go about your day fearing its loss. You need to be happy doing what you’re doing,” concludes Kochhar.