As of Monday, Germany's top chefs are either sobbing in their boulliabaisse or feeling as light as a soufflé. The Michelin Guide Germany 2004, with its star-studded restaurant ratings, has been released.
Michelin only awards its stars to the most "haute" of haute cuisine.
Over the past year, teams of undercover operatives have been sneaking into top restaurants under assumed names, ordering escargot and goose liver, Breton oysters and duck à l'orange, scrutinizing the sauces and handing down verdicts on the vichyssoise. Now the hammer has fallen; culinary judgment has been made. Like a beaujolais nouveau, the Michelin Guide for Germany has arrived.
Stars have been given, and stars have been taken away.
Düsseldorf's "Im Schiffchen" restaurant has three stars.
Michelin's 2004 version of its famous restaurant guide for Germany was published on Monday. The "Red Guides," widely considered the bibles of the culinary connoisseur, determine for many who resides in the upper echelons of the gastronomic universe by awarding top restaurants one, two, or a rare constellation of three stars.
This year, Michelin's Germany guide elevated 23 restaurants into its ranks, but decided that 18 star holders were no longer worthy of their designations and stripped them of the coveted status. All in all in Germany, there are 175 restaurants in the one-star category while 13 have two stars. Only five restaurants in Germany enjoy Michelin's highest honor.
Hamburg is the leader among German cities with Michelin-star restaurants. Nine restaurants in the city have earned stars. Berlin comes in second with eight, followed by Stuttgart with seven.
Harald Wohlfahrt, head chef of the "Schwarzwaldstube" restaurant in Baiersbronn-Tonbach, which has three Michelin stars
A Michelin blessing can be a powerful springboard to gastromonic stardom. Chefs with stars under their belts demand salaries between €6,000 and €10,000 (ca. $7,100 - $11,800) a month and are held in high esteem by their colleagues.
At the same time, a loss of a star -- restaurants must constantly defend their rankings -- can send chefs and their careers plummeting. Hans-Peter Wodarz, 57, a chef who once cooked the Wiesbaden restaurant "Ente vom Lehel" into the Michelin heaven, told the newsmagazine Der Spiegel that the guide can either "advance livelihoods or destroy them."
Taster in the house!
Such power is not looked upon lightly and when a restaurant suspects that one of the Michelin emissaries has come to rate the establishment, the atmosphere in the kitchen can get tense. That is what happened recently at the two-star restaurant "Zur Alten Post" in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler.
A 30-year-old guest who had arrived at midday, alone, raised suspicions. He didn't order any appetizers and drank only one glass of wine.
"From what we chefs know, those are clear indicators that a Michelin tester is sitting there at the table," Hans Stefan Steinheuer, head chef at the restaurant, told Der Spiegel.
Steinheuer even went out to the parking lot behind the restaurant and found a car there with Michelin tires and a license plate indicating it came from Karlsruhe, where Michelin's German headquarters is located.
Despite the uproar, he denies that he would treat a suspected Michelin tester any differently than he would an ordinary guest. Still, the knowledge that a Michelin judging might be taking place, which can have ramifications not only for fame and glory, but also for profits and salaries, can be tough on the nerves, he said.
Top chef Wodarz told Der Spiegel that the fear of losing a star once it's earned "can be equivalent to the fear of castration."
The price of stardom
For some though, Michelin stars can turn into black holes, eating up profits and energies trying to meet the demands of the secret and some consider suspect judging methods.
"I was losing money, lots of money," Matthias Dahlinger, the 34-year-old chef of the Eichhalde restaurant in Freiburg, told Bloomberg. "That's why I told Michelin to take back my star."
Dahlinger said defending the Michelin tribute was costing him a fortune, because he didn't have enough customers to pay the higher prices the rating brought along with it. After six years of having a star on the door of his family-run restaurant, he decided to take it off.
"Last year I invested $16,000 in 250 expensive French wines to maintain my star," he said. "I couldn't meet my payroll. Michelin's expectations are too high."
He decided to cut his prices and reduce expenses by offering less expensive wines and replacing items like caviar. He decided the star was not worth catering to the whims of a shrinking market of wealthy tourists who arrange their itineraries around following Michelin's Milky Way.
He's not alone in his rejection of the famed rating. The renowned Parisian brasserie Maxim's asked Michelin to take back its stars in the 1980s. Others have followed suit more recently. "It's very exciting to win a Michelin star," said Marco Pierre White, who rebuffed Michelin when it awarded him three stars for two of his London restaurants. "It's very boring and expensive to defend it."