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PARIS (Reuters) - Eric Frechon, one of President Nicolas Sarkozy's favorite chefs, won a coveted third star on Monday in the 2009 Michelin Guide, France's bible for gourmets.
However, the economic crisis loomed large at the unveiling of the Michelin handbook, with restaurateurs and critics warning that the recession might take a bite out of the industry.
The prestigious guide with the red cover is celebrating its 100th anniversary and sprinkled 73 new stars on restaurants across France, with 26 eateries claiming the 3-star rating.
Frechon, chef at the luxury Paris hotel Le Bristol, was the only person in France to be promoted to the top table this year.
"This is the top de top. The culmination of 30 years of work," Frechon told Reuters in a telephone interview as he was cooking at lunchtime.
British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was awarded two stars for his Trianon restaurant in Versailles, which he only took over last year, defying one of France's top food critics, Francois Simon, who branded his dishes as boring and repetitive.
Ramsay already runs a three-star establishment in London and a two star restaurant in New York and has made clear he is gunning for three stars in three different cities.
The emergence of a three star restaurant is a major event in food-crazy France and the promotion of the Bristol has been given added spice because it is a stone's throw from Sarkozy's Elysee Palace and is patronized by the French president.
Frechon said Sarkozy's favorite dish was macaroni stuffed with artichoke, truffles and foie gras, which costs 85 euros ($107).
Sarkozy showed his appreciation last year when he awarded Frechon the sought-after Legion of Honor award.
Besides the macaroni, Frechon's other trademark dish is chicken cooked in bladder with crayfish, offal, black truffles and white wine. It costs 210 euros.
With that sort of price list it is perhaps unsurprising that the restaurant is feeling the impact of the economic slowdown.
"Before we were full every lunchtime and evening and we had a waiting list. Now, some of the seats are empty. Let's hope the third star will help us fill the gaps," Frechon said.
The last economic downturn in France in the early 1990s led to hard times for many restaurants with the number of three star eateries dwindling to under 20 as leading chefs struggled to keep up standards while trying to limit costs.
Jean-Francois Mesplede, editor of the French Michelin guide who ate out 380 times last year in restaurants hoping for stars, said the industry faced tough times.
"Of course we are worried. Going to eat at a restaurant is something you do for pleasure, not out of necessity," he said.
"For the first time restaurant owners are telling us they don't know what kind of condition they are going to be in next year," he added.
Editing by Paul Casciato