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When Michelin tells chefs they’ve lost stars, mental health is top of mind

French chef Guy Savoy in his Paris restaurant. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

Two of the world’s most famous chefs were about to lose a Michelin star — the most coveted recognition of their trade. Christopher Coutanceau’s and Guy Savoy’s restaurants would be downgraded from three stars to two in the Michelin guide’s forthcoming French edition — a demotion that can tarnish chefs’ reputations and hurt their business.

So Gwendal Poullennec, the guide’s international director, hopped in his car and drove five hours from Paris to La Rochelle, the southwestern city where Coutanceau’s eponymous restaurant is located, spending “the time that was needed for the chef to listen and to understand” Michelin’s decision, a spokesperson said. Poullennec also had “a private discussion” with Savoy, whose restaurant is inside the historic Monnaie de Paris building in the French capital.

It’s a practice that is becoming more common amid a growing awareness of the mental health struggles chefs can face while navigating the pressure cooker that is the high-end restaurant industry.

The organization is “in the process” of contacting the two dozen other chefs who are set to lose a star in the Michelin Guide France 2023. The full ranking will be revealed on Monday at an event in northeastern France.

“We are fully aware of the impact of our decisions for the restaurants concerned,” the group said.

Attaining three Michelin stars is a lifelong pursuit for many high-end chefs, but the race to achieve and then maintain that distinction is notoriously stressful. In France, the deaths by suicide of two Michelin-starred chefs in the past two decades are often cited as cautionary tales.

After “getting 3 stars for being the best of the best,” losing a star “would feel like someone ripping your heart out,” Samuel Squires, a chef at the Old Crown Coaching Inn in Oxfordshire, England, said via WhatsApp. The “public and media attention and also your doubts of am I good enough will all come to play,” he said.

Dayan, a chef based in Australia who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name to discuss sensitive topics, agreed with the idea that chefs’ reputations are tied up in their work — whether it’s a star or a review.

“While I haven’t lost a star, I have had a critic slam me in a national paper. It was horrific, the torment I felt and pain it caused me,” he said via email. After the negative review came out, Dayan said, he tried to take his own life.

While the “pain eventually subsided,” Dayan said, his workplace was unable to accept that the negative review “actually had very little bearing on trade.” That realization “has informed the way I process critique from guests, staff and stakeholders,” he said.

After two Michelin-starred chefs — Benoit Violier and Bernard Loiseau — died by suicide in 2016 and 2003, respectively, those who knew them speculated that the pressure of maintaining their rankings may have played a role in the tragedies. Their deaths helped spur a conversation about the pressures of the job.

“It’s lonely being a chef,” said Kris Hall, founder of the Burnt Chef Project, an advocacy campaign on mental health in the hospitality industry.

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The job can entail working up to 12-hour days in some restaurants, with little time for rest or a personal life. “It takes a huge toll not just on your mental, but also your physical state,” said Hall, who worked for years as an ingredients supplier to fine-dining establishments in England before founding the group.

“Chefs are stoic, strong individuals. They’re meant to be very resilient, as well, which means that we’ve sort of been trained … not to show any signs of ‘weakness,’” Hall said. This prevents many chefs from seeking help in times of crisis, he adds. “You’ll hear stories … of people who have cut themselves or burned themselves quite severely, and they will continue through service in order to get the job done.”

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Chefs sometimes put “a lot of pressure on their shoulders and on their teams’ shoulders because they want to maintain a certain level of performance,” the spokesperson for the Michelin guide acknowledged, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss company policies. That is part of the reason Poullennec, after taking the helm of the organization in 2018, began to systematically reach out to chefs who were losing stars, the spokesperson said. “Before him, there were some calls, but not everybody” got one, the spokesperson added.

Michelin reaches out well before the announcement is made publicly, at a time when the chefs are not working — so that they do not have to return to their kitchens and face customers immediately after finding out. “It’s really important for us to take the time to do it properly,” the spokesperson said.

While Michelin has not developed formal guidelines for the practice, the organization says it is committed to it for the long run. “We don’t want to surf on a trend [of mental health],” the spokesperson said. The group prefers to say it is “evolving” toward a more “transparent” way of working. “We stay independent, and that’s our strength, so we won’t compromise on that, but we can also take the time to explain our decisions,” they added.

The evolution in Michelin’s approach to managing chefs’ expectations with stars comes amid a particularly difficult time for workers and the hospitality industry. The coronavirus pandemic forced many restaurants to close and created shortages of trained cooks and waiters. Fine-dining restaurants have not been spared: Noma in Copenhagen, which earned three Michelin stars and was named “world’s best restaurant,” announced this year that it would close, citing an “unsustainable” business model.

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The Michelin guide is also under pressure to prove that it is still relevant in an age when restaurant recommendations can easily be accessed on TikTok and Yelp. And it has faced criticism from chefs, some of whom say the process of awarding and removing stars is opaque, and others who say the pressure of maintaining stars stifles creativity.

Sebastien Bras, a chef who had one Michelin star, asked the organization in 2017 to take it away so he could experiment “without wondering if my creations will please the Michelin inspectors or not.”

When Bras explained his unusual request in an interview with Agence France-Presse at the time, he said he had in mind — like “everyone, restaurateurs and guides” — the memory of Loiseau’s death.

“Maybe I will lose notoriety but I accept it,” Bras told AFP. “I will be able to feel free.”