French chef says "no, thanks" to Michelin star

NIMES, France Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:55am EDT

1 of 2. French chef Olivier Douet, who won a one star in the 2006 Michelin Guide, poses in his restaurant in Nimes, June 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

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NIMES, France (Reuters Life!) - The Michelin star bestowed on Le Lisita restaurant in the ancient Roman outpost city of Nimes in southern France brought it acclaim and exclusivity.

But the jump in prices after the famous guide book's ranking has meant fewer customers for chef Olivier Douet, who is relinquishing his star and transforming Le Lisita into a casual brasserie to try and lure back diners in a country still struggling with economic gloom.

A growing number of French chefs are breaking away from the trappings of elite cuisine -- Michelin's star system, elaborate creations and armies of white-gloved waiters -- as households grapple with high unemployment and stagnant purchasing power.

Instead, many are embracing a wider variety of techniques and turning to more formats like bistros or brasseries, with less formal and fussy fare at a fraction of the price.

"In the days of the star we had a 29-euro menu. This menu still exists but now it's the most expensive menu," said Douet, stressing that there would be no drop in quality with the change to cheaper dishes.

A star or, even better, two from Michelin -- three stars are few and far between -- is the ultimate prize for a chef.

Douet, who received his star in 2006, said his plan had originally been to develop a luxury hotel attached to the restaurant but the financial crisis kept lenders at bay.

Then the finances of running a one-star establishment became untenable, given the extra staff he was forced to hire to keep up the restaurant's standards.

Now, Douet is offering fixed-price two- and three-course menus for between 23 and 28 euros ($33-$40), or starters ranging from 17 to 28 euros featuring such dishes as scallops with a Shiitake mushroom emulsion or bull steak with garlic and baby spinach.

"The foie gras is still available, but only a la carte," said Douet. "All the high-end products have been taken off the fixed-price menu."

A spokeswoman for Michelin would not say how many eateries have handed back stars in recent years, saying only that it happens from time to time, usually when a restaurant wants to change its style.

"The stars belong to Michelin," she added. "It's not up to the restaurants to give them back -- it's we who decide."

(Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato)

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