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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Food Fight: 'Snooty' French Guide Stirs Gallic Stew

PARIS -- Some of France's top chefs are suffering a major case of heartburn.


The 1996 GaultMillau food guide is out, and it boasts a new, tougher rating system designed to weed out what it calls overpriced mediocrity. Some long-established restaurants have been taken down a few notches.


Second in influence only to the red Michelin guide, the GaultMillau rates 8,000 restaurants and hotels on a scale of 1-19. It also awards one to four "toques" -- the tall white hats chefs wear -- for "exceptional tables," those restaurants scoring 13 or more.


In the 1995 guide, 30 restaurants earned the top rating of 19 points and four toques. But this year, only 12 made the grade. Why the cutbacks?


"There was toque inflation, with too many restaurants getting too many toques," Patrice de Nussac, editor in chief at GaultMillau, said in an interview. "This blocked the rise of some of the younger, more creative chefs."


He said that with so many established chefs already getting the top ranking in recent years, GaultMillau's inspectors had been reluctant to promote new chefs to the top level.


Fighting inflation meant downgrading dozens of restaurants, including Paul Bocuse's venerable restaurant outside Lyon, which lost two points after enjoying four-toque status for more than 20 years.


"The GaultMillau guide is dying, and they needed to do something spectacular,'' Bocuse said. "They take away two points, yet they have the nerve to write that everything is as good as ever. How can you take them seriously?''


Known for its irreverence and finger-wagging attention to detail, the GaultMillau guide sells about 200,000 copies yearly. The book costs 175 francs ($35).


For most food experts, it's the perfect complement to the Michelin guide, which hands out stars -- "macaroons" as the French call them -- for excellence, without any commentary at all. Michelin gave its top rating of three stars to 20 restaurants last year.


Besides reviewing the food, GaultMillau dispenses sometimes snooty appraisals of decor, service and ambience. The latest edition accuses dozens of restaurants of serving up highly inflated tabs.


"Maxim's is the Titanic of Paris restaurants," the guide says, declining to give the famed landmark a numerical grade. "The orchestra plays on uninterrupted while the boat sinks."


Other restaurateurs accused GaultMillau of blatant self-promotion. For Jean-Claude Vrinat, second-generation owner of the posh Taillevent, near the Arc de Triomphe, the ratings change was simply a "publicity stunt."


But de Nussac contends the guide now has new credibility.


He said the new ratings help promote creative chefs willing to cut margins, trim staff and work harder to reduce costs they can pass on to their customers.


"The GaultMillau guide is dying, and they needed to do something spectacular,'' Bocuse said. "They take away two points, yet they have the nerve to write that everything is as good as ever. How can you take them seriously?''