June 23, 2011 / 11:58 AM / in 6 years

French chef says "no, thanks" to Michelin star

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.

<p>French chef Olivier Douet, who won a one star in the 2006 Michelin Guide, poses in his restaurant in Nimes, June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier</p>

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.

<p>French chef Olivier Douet, who won a one star in the 2006 Michelin Guide, poses in front of his restaurant in Nimes, June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier</p>

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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