Note Taking in Provence

The Authors Answer

Their Own Questions

Q

What was the genesis of Chasing Stars?

Although we had been dining in top restaurants in France for the best part of a dozen years, we didn't truly comprehend the significance of Le Guide Michelin. It was from our French friend Jean-François, maitre d' at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Provence, that we first discovered the lengths French chefs go to win a star, or to try to grab a second star. 

From J-F, we heard about how he and his boss, the chef/patron of Le Grand Pré in Roaix, would travel around Europe, dining at restaurants with two stars, at each one studying the tableware, checking the washrooms, stealing menus, and making notes in an attempt to fathom what they could improve in their own restaurant to tempt the Michelin inspectors into awarding them a second star. It was from him that we learned just how much French chefs value the Michelin ratings.

Subsequently, we were able to spend time with two dozen top Michelin-starred chefs in France to discover what it means to them to earn a star, and to find out what they are willing to do to hang onto it, or maybe, just maybe, earn a second star.

Chasing Stars is the first book to explore the impact and influence of the Michelin Guide in France.

Q

In brief, what is the story behind the Michelin Guide?

There is no other restaurant guide shrouded in as much mystery as the Michelin Guide. No one knows who the inspectors are, supposedly not even their own mothers. Restaurants do not know when an inspector will visit their restaurant. The Michelin Guide is a prestigious club that you cannot buy your way into. 

 

Michelin was founded in 1889 by brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand, France to produce bicycle tires. By 1900 they were mainly manufacturing tires for automobiles. At that time there were fewer than 3,000 cars on the road in all of France, but the Michelins realized that the more people traveled, the more often they would have to buy new tires. So, they began publishing a guide to encourage motorists to take to the road, telling them where to go, how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, and even how to change a flat tire. No one could have guessed that their advice on restaurants would become central to their success, or that the guide would be so influential in the culinary culture of the country.

  

Today, Michelin guides are published in two dozen countries; it is consistently one of the best-selling restaurant guides in the world. Its modus operandi is that the reviews are by anonymous inspectors, who are professionally trained and trusted for their accurate assessment of a restaurant’s food and service. 

 

The French edition of Le Guide Michelin for 2020 awarded three stars to only twenty-nine  restaurants in all of France, two stars to eight-six others, and one star to a further five-hundred-thirteen. 

Q

What research did you do for Chasing Stars?

Jean-François' revelation made us realize there was a fascinating story to be told. Once our decision was made to go deeper, we created a war room, dedicated to Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Our first steps included mapping each one-star restaurant in the country and attaching a detailed brief about the chef. We targeted one-star restaurants in a variety of categories – such as fine dining, rustic, chef/patron owned, classic, modern – in some of the most popular regions of France like Burgundy, Paris, and Provence. 

 

Our initial field research was an entire summer spent traveling around France, visiting two dozen Michelin star restaurants, interviewing chefs, sampling their dishes, and soaking up the regional ambiance. Driving from town to village to country inn; getting to know the chefs with a mixture of French and English and the occasional interpreter; taking copious notes, making photographs, poking into the kitchens and wine cellars. Tomorrow and tomorrow, another day on the road, another restaurant. 

 

In addition to the Summer of Dining, we spend substantial time in France every year, each time adding new restaurants and new stories to our files.

Q

Why are you the people to write this book?

Our fascination with French cuisine was ignited by our very first trip to Paris. Since then we have logged dozens of visits, pilgrimages, and lengthy stays in France, always with a focus on the food and wine of the country.

 

In addition, our status as Paris and France travel writers and photographers, coupled with our web presence, gives us access to just about anything to do with the culinary culture of the country. Restauranteurs and publicists know that restaurants we've written and raved about have later been awarded a Michelin star, or a second star. (We've also raved about restaurants that Michelin didn't so honour. Why they don't listen to us all the time remains an unsolved mystery!)

 

We have developed relationships with French public relations agencies and we are often invited by them to interview the chefs they represent, dine at their restaurants, poke around in the kitchens, and generally make a nuisance of ourselves. 

Q

Why now? Why produce Chasing Stars at this time?

We've been collecting great material for half a dozen years. During that time, though, our focus had been on our Paris travel website, and that's where we concentrated our efforts. Currently, however, a couple of things have changed.

 

First of all, Paris Insiders Guide is now well established and running with minimal input from us. Second of course is the big event of 2020 – the Covid-19 pandemic and its affect on travel and travel-related businesses. For these two reasons we now can devote ourselves to completing Chasing Stars.

 

Finally, at no other time have we been more in need of armchair travel to remind us what life was like BC – Before Covid. Our readers are hungry to experience France in any way they can.

Q

What resources do you have to complete the book? 

Once we started the project, we quickly learned that many Michelin-starred chefs in France were eager to be involved. We never have difficulty in getting chefs to invite us into their kitchens, to tell us their stories, to share their hopes and fears, and in fact, share their opinions about Michelin. Even Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin, New York) – of whom Anthony Bourdain said, simply, "He's one of the world's best chefs" – was  interested enough in our project to participate in a lengthy interview.

Q

Do you have other book ideas to follow up Chasing Stars?

We have at least a few dimes' worth! One of our current favourite ideas goes by the working title, Inside a French Pâtisserie.

 

In France, "pâtisserie" is used to describe pastries as well as the shop where they are made and sold. Although the word is liberally used in English-speaking countries, French law restricts its use to bakeries who employ a licensed maître pâtissier – a master pastry chef. A pâtissier must complete a lengthy training program, including an apprenticeship, and must pass a written examination. 

 

With more than 30,000 independent bakeries, there's a boulangerie or pâtisserie on practically every corner in France. In fact, the French consume around ten billion baguettes a year and enjoy pastries and baked desserts every day of the week. 

 

We would love to get behind the scenes in the day-to-day work of French patisseries and examine how they are integral to the rhythm of daily in places like Paris, Provence, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. 

 

Oh, and then there's A Year in the Life of Champagne...

Q

What is your primary online platform?

In 2010, after a dozen years of traveling to France at every opportunity, we created Paris Insiders Guide to share our wealth of knowledge. Little did we know the impact it would have on our life. By 2019 we had become one of the top online guides to Paris with millions of annual page views.

 

One of our most-read sections is about Paris restaurants. In fact, our article Michelin 3-Star Restaurants In Paris consistently ranks at the top of Google searches for that term. 

Platforms Synopsis

Paris Insiders Guide

120,000 unique monthly visits, 4 million annual page views.

(Source: SBI Traffic Statistics Report, December 2019.)

Facebook Followers: 17,000

We have an email list numbering in the tens of thousands (25,000 to 30,000?) of Paris Insiders Guide readers who have signed up for our free Paris travel tips.

Q

Chasing Stars in 50 words?

A fusion of the humour and insight of Peter Mayle with the reflection and wonder of Frances Mayes, spiced with a soupçon of the adventures of Anthony Bourdain tempered by the precision of Eric Ripert.

 

It’s a Michelin-centric exploration of the glories of French culinary culture.

©2020 by Voconces Culinary Ltd. Photographs ©Mark Craft.