It begins with the water. “Scottish or French, mademoiselle?” asks a waiter, who stands patiently at the table as I try to form a considered opinion on H2O. I choose French, as I’m in France – at Sur Mesure restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Paris. Its website promises “food and emotions by Thierry Marx” and although I haven’t yet tried any of the former, my dominant experience of the latter so far is intimidation. Around me sit Parisians, coiffed and relaxed, enjoying lunches full of luxury ingredients and dishes with names such as “semi-pris de coquillages”.
The water is followed by three types of “crisp” – chilli, nori (seaweed) and oats, presented in a folded napkin. A plate on which no food will ever sit is put in front of me, only to be whisked away when the starter arrives. This is “structured and destructured rhubarb”, in which the vegetable has been variously massaged into ravioli, slivered on to goat’s cheese and shoved into a mousse with beetroot.
Everything is arranged with such pinpoint precision that I wonder whether the chefs have protractors and scalpels in the kitchen. The menu comes on a scroll, presented on a wooden tray; the wine list is encased in a dark leather coffret. One of the dishes – described, in that curious mixture of singular and plural that characterises English translations of French menus, as “soy and oysters risotto” – is composed not of rice grains, but of hand-carved chips of soybean.
Then there is the equipment. It’s not just Heston Blumenthal using industrial machines in the quest for the perfect flavour. Marx tells me that he uses a centrifuge to create his blackcurrant sorbet, separating out various percentages of water and fruit until he has it just right.
Now, clear your plate
This abundance, this extravagance and this obsessive attention to detail are the signatures of Michelin-starred food. Its anonymous inspectors aim to sidestep the usual criticism of restaurant reviews – how do we know you’re getting the same treatment as the rest of us? – and one, interviewed though not identified by the New Yorker in 2009, confessed to eating out more than 200 days a year, both lunch and dinner. She had to have the maximum number of courses offered and clear every plate.
The Michelin Guide, which celebrated its centenary in the UK in 2011, has its dissenters. The Observer’s Jay Rayner asked rhetorically in a blog, “Who really gives a damn what a bunch of self-important, self-appointed inspectors think?” And the food writer Andy Hayler, who had eaten in every three-starred restaurant as of 2010, concedes on his website: “Michelin has its flaws. It tends to be cautious both to give stars and to take them away, and outside of French cuisine, it can be less reliable.”
Others say the end products championed by the star system are too small, too fussy and – above all – too expensive. Yet there is no other award system that means so much to chefs, particularly in Paris. There are just 109 restaurants in the world with the top three-star rating. Ten of these are in the French capital, as against four in the whole of England.
Sur Mesure has two stars (meaning it is “worth a detour”), while Epicure – Eric Frechon’s new restaurant at the Hôtel le Bristol on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré – has three (“worth a special trip”). There, the food is elevated to an even higher pitch of beautiful madness. A pudding arrives that is as much architecture as nourishment: a cast chocolate shell, which opens to reveal a quenelle of ice cream wrapped in gold leaf.
The non-foodie might ask what the point is of carving beans to look like rice, or wrapping a fast-melting oval of ice cream in a precious metal, when it’s so difficult and expensive – but that is precisely the point. Haute cuisine, like haute couture or supercars, is all about impractical fantasy; and in comparison to the two others, €35 for a gold-encrusted pudding begins to seem almost cheap.
The pursuit of perfection exerts a great toll, however. Most top chefs don’t cook at home; they’re too banjaxed from the incredible hours demanded of them. “During the week, I get up at 6.45am and rarely get to bed before 1.30am,” Marcus Wareing, chef patron at a two-starred restaurant in London, once wrote in this magazine. When I interviewed Marx, monopolising his 15-minute break between the end of lunch service and the beginning of preparation for dinner, he said much the same.
“Being a chef is not a job,” he added, fiddling with chopsticks. “I start at 6.30am and finish at 12.30am; it’s a problem for my family.” Like other chefs, he eats plain and simple food by choice when off-duty. He speaks fondly of his father’s corned-beef recipe.
Despite all this, Marx is proud of his stars – and hopes to complete the set. There is, he acknowledges with a sad smile, only one problem with the rating system. “Michelin stars are a victory which is always behind you.”
How to get there: Eurostar operates up to 18 services daily from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare du Nord (return fares from £69). More details: eurostar.com