I thought they were talking about soccer league standings or maybe a rugby score. "Twenty-one," said the baker. "Twenty-one," repeated the pudgy guy in front of me buying croissants.
Across the street at the cafe on the Rue Saint-Antoine I heard a similar refrain. "Twenty-one?"
As I strolled through the open market on the Boulevard de Minilmontant near my office a butcher reluctantly left his morning copy of Le Parisien and served a man who looked like a walking sausage.
"See, there are still 21," said the man. "The ratings are fixed."
A few hours later I deciphered their coded language: It meant Michelin.
The news was on the radio, on TV, in all the papers and on the collective tongue of the capital. The Michelin red guide to hotels and restaurants in France had arrived. Michelin: the bible of gastronomes, assembled by an unknown number of secretive inspectors who prowl the country in search not only of humbug and bedbugs to denounce, but of the Delicious, the Luxurious and the Sublime. After a long and fraught winter, nothing reignites the fires of French foodies -- and even normal citizens -- quite like it.
Cafe barmen, chefs, gourmets, bakers, candlestick makers, food purveyors and publishers (in search of lucrative cookbook contracts) wait with salivating trepidation for the guide's early-March release. Though it also lists hotels, the real attention-grabbers are the eateries that belong to the "Michelin Star System."
It works roughly as follows: One-star restaurants are nifty little luxury places with noticeably good food and coddle-the-client service; two-stars are seriously luxurious with even better food, even more waiters and maitres d' and often valets or other personnel in silly outfits to greet you in a private parking lot; three-stars are veritable temples of gastronomy with an army of maitres d', waiters, coat clerks, bathroom personnel, brass polishing brigades and so on, places where you must plead and wheedle months in advance to get a table upon which you may sacrifice thousands of francs -- hundreds of dollars -- for a dining experience orchestrated by an artist-chef. Ironically, all of this ethereal kingmaking in the restaurant business comes from a branch of a down-to-earth company whose main business is making tires.
This year Michelin's little red book went on sale across France and the world starting March 3. Which brings me back to the magic number: 21. Twenty-one is how many three-star restaurants there are in France. The number has remained more or less the same since the rating was introduced in 1934. Everyone has a theory, most of them outlandish, about this number. Supposedly, it derives from divine numerology or the rites of Freemasons; other commentators say it is somehow determined by a Michelin Mafia of selected chefs, foodies and Michelin inspectors, coordinated by the Mysterious Monsieur Michelin (the red guide's director, Bernard Naegellen). It is indeed Naegellen who ultimately decides which restaurants will get or lose a third star, but his judgments are made in concert with his crack team of inspectors. Stars are given and taken away only after many years of study. Was the service perfect every day and night? Was the food exquisite to the appropriate degree? How about the plumbing? Is it in good condition, with gold-plated toilet paper holders?
Nonetheless, many otherwise-sane French citizens honestly believe that a chef must die or lose a third star before another chef can get one -- to keep the magic number stable.
This year is no exception and the conspiracy theorists are delighted: A famous chef lost his third star, another one got it.
The brightest star of the late 1980s, Marc Meneau, owner-chef of l'Espérance in Saint-Père sous Vézelay, has been "sanctioned," i.e. humiliated and demoted to two stars (of which there are currently 74). Meneau had run into financial problems recently, mostly because he had overexpanded and was forced to shut his Pré des Marguerites annex. Apologists for the (formerly) self-assured chef are already weeping into their hundred-dollar plates of braised bone marrow with caviar.
Beyond the humiliation of being booted out of the club, the loss of a third star can cost a chef a lot of business (10 to 25 percent, it is estimated). Suddenly, the international consultations begin to dry up, the TV and radio interviewers stop banging on the door and the juicy cookbook and chef-accessory spinoff contracts shrivel. This can add up to millions of dollars for the top players.
The reverse is true of new three-star restaurants: a rise of up to 50 percent in business and money-spinning offers of all kinds.
So who got Meneau's star, so to speak? The happiest man in France right now is Michel Bras, chef-owner of, yes, Michel Bras, the restaurant. It is located on the two-lane D15 highway outside the far-flung town of Laguiole in the Aveyron, just east of the Dordogne and smack in the middle of deep, rural France.
Up till now the town has been famous for two reasons. Primo, it is the birthplace of the beautiful Laguiole folding pocket knife and elegant dinner knives. All self-respecting French men and women possess at least one. The knives are very much in fashion in Paris.
Secondo, and more importantly, locals with their colorful Midi accent pronounce the town's name "la-yoowl," while Parisians insist on calling it "la-ghee-aul," which makes for much hilarity both there and here in the capital.
Now Laguiole has a three-star chef to boast about, too, and you can bet this long-awaited Michelin promotion will sharpen the town's knives, boost foodie tourism and cause a glut of travel and food articles to be written about the undiscovered, untrammeled and, until now, under-reported Aveyron.
Michel Bras -- who is wild about greens, herbs and game from his equally wild region -- has long been celebrated by other guidebooks, notably the Gault et Millau (Go eh Mee-ow), which gave him its highest rating (19/20) years ago.
As the foodie pundits note, Michelin giveth and Michelin taketh away -- slowly. The solemn, stodgy, glacially slow, humorless and cryptic guide (neutral symbols are used and there is almost no text) is known to be the opposite of mercurial Gault et Millau. But there is no question that Michelin remains the arbiter of la grande cuisine served at les grandes tables run by les grands chefs. It also happens to be reliable, professionally put together and squeaky clean: The inspectors appear to be incorruptible.
Michelin's peculiar rite of spring -- le Guide France -- got started in 1900 and so celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2000. Desirous to update its image and keep the dust off its shoulders, the 1999 edition has included various proofs of its continuing vigor.
The first and most welcome is the addition in the Paris section of the guide of a list of good-value restaurants identified with the Bib Gourmand symbol -- a smiling Michelin Tire Man's face. The Tire Man, as everyone knows in France, is nicknamed Bibendum, hence the chummy nickname "Bib." The word "gourmand" needs no translation, though it is worth pointing out that this term means "food-loving" and "hearty-eating." It was chosen over "gourmet," which, as in English, means someone with refined tastes in things gastronomical. Presumably gourmets will continue to go to the starred restaurants (expensive, posh) while big eaters with smaller wallets will hit the Bib Gourmands.
Of course you should take the Bib Gourmand system with a truckload of sel (preferably sea salt, the current rage). The Bib symbol was introduced in the mid-1990s in order to pacify critics who claim that Michelin doesn't pay enough attention to good but simple establishments (i.e., tasty food dispensed in pleasant but less than opulent surroundings). Bib has been used in the French provinces with excellent results. Following the flabby face through the countryside, you really do find great low-cost meals. Huge portions of stuffed pheasant, pike braised in Pinot Noir, saddle of rabbit in mustard sauce -- that kind of thing.
In Paris and its suburbs, though, Bib is an absolute novelty because the prices here are so high that it's difficult indeed to eat well without being fleeced like a spring lamb.
It's too bad but not surprising that the 35 Bib Gourmand restaurants in the capital and its surroundings offer meals averaging $30-$50 (and up) per person sans wine. That may be cheap by the blubbery Bib's standards -- this is the Michelin guide, after all -- but not by mine. Still, it's a waddle in the right direction.
While the three-star shuffle and Bib Gourmand's City of Light debut have inevitably attracted the most attention this year, some French foodies have also taken notice of the promotion of a Chinese chef to one-star status. The lucky man is Fung-Ching Chen, from Shanghai, via Hong Kong, owner of Soleil d'Est in Paris' 15th arrondissement.
With a large Chinese and Asian population, and dozens of truly exceptional restaurants as a result, you would think there would be many starred Asian chefs in town. No. Of the 12 listed in the Paris section of the guide, only Soleil d'Est gets a star. A single star, mind you. Why does his restaurant deserve such distinction? Here's a hint: It's expensive (about $100 a head) and swank.
Stars are not only for the cooking. They're also linked to luxury surroundings, service and reliability. Being French, or French-leaning, also helps.
Could Chen's rising star be hooked to the fact that, beyond his undoubted mastery as a chef of Chinese specialties, he is also famous for his ability to transform things French into classic Asian delights? Insiders say the Michelin team's palate was flattered by Chen's ultra-classic Challans duck (from France's Vendée region near Nantes) lacquered à la mode pékinoise. Not exactly Révolutionnaire.
The case of M. Chen reveals a lot about Michelin in particular and France in general. The guide remains steadfastly conservative, classic, high-end and Franco-centric, reflecting the country's conviction that its cuisine and culinary sensibilities are the best in the world.
Otherwise, how to explain the fact that in Paris alone there are six three-star restaurants, the same number as in Italy, Spain and Portugal combined? Or try this tally: Switzerland has two three-stars; Germany, Belgium/the Netherlands and Great Britain/Ireland each have three. All of them serve French or French-style food and all are expensive and luxurious.
Fourteen three-stars in the whole of Europe compared to 21 in France alone? Ce n'est pas possible!
The truth is, France's cultural identity is still largely tied to its cooking, like a Challans duck barded with poitrine fumée (smoked bacon) or lacquered à la mode pékinoise.
Coincidentally, as the Michelin red guides hit the stands, the big Paris agricultural fair is in full swing out at the Porte de Versailles convention center. It's all about range-raised folksiness, food, wine, tradition and politics. President Jacques Chirac and a dozen salt-of-the-earth ministers of all political formations attend the fair to press the flesh and ask their constituents, "C'est quoi ce boeuf?" (What's the beef?)
Could it be a further coincidence that radio, TV and newspaper reports (including a full page in Le Monde) are heatedly discussing French farming, food, wine and the eating habits of the nation? According to Le Monde, the Limousin, Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrénées regions -- about a quarter of the country -- spend the longest at the table over dinner. Happily, French adolescents still eat 78 percent of their dinners at home with their parents and haven't yet been transformed into obese fast-food junkies. Four out of five French citizens still manage to eat lunch at home every day, and the ratio reaches an astounding nine out of 10 for dinner.
So here's the paradox: If nearly all French men, women and children are happily feeding at home, who's consulting all those Michelin guides, theoretically conceived and compiled by and for the French? Michelin's statistics show that of the 580,000 copies of the 1998 guide sold, two-thirds were bought in France. The numbers don't tell us the nationality of guide buyers. But look around next time you're at a grande table operated by a grand chef famous for his grande cuisine. You might recognize a cousin from Peoria, or maybe Osaka, at the next table. If you're lucky you might even meet a French citizen who's not a Michelin inspector or a journalist.