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France has caught up with Japan in the number of restaurants boasting the top three Michelin stars, with both countries on 27 apiece in this year’s edition of the celebrated food guide.
But on Monday, Gallic pride was restored when Michelin awarded the ultimate culinary accolade to the restaurant of 35-year-old chef Arnaud Donckele in St Tropez, the only new top ranking in the 2013 edition.
Five establishments gained a second star, bringing the national total to 82. There are 487 one-starred restaurants this year, including 39 first stars.
Michelin said it had this year paid tribute to regional cuisine and “terroir” – gastronomy intimately linked to the local soil.
The award for La Vague d’Or at Residence de la Pinede makes Mr Donckele the youngest cook in France’s highly select club of superchefs.
“Arnaud Donckele’s cuisine provides diners with a unique, unforgettable experience,” Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin guides, said on Monday. “His fish dishes are highly original and he has personally sought out local producers to find the highest quality ingredients.”
His signature dishes include baby lobster and John Dory in aspic, pearled and cooked in their natural sea water with caviar and a verbena infusion, or Zitoni pasta filled with black truffle and foie gras, served with violet artichokes and flavored Thai basil.
Describing it as a “great surprise”, Mr Donckele said he was “overcome with emotion” when he heard the news.
“Cuisine must tell a story – one about the region,” he said. “I mix classic Mediterranean dishes with my own personal sensitivity and insist on respecting the produce.
“We are nothing compared to fisherman and farmers,” said the chef, insisting he would “remain very simple”.
Mr Donckele trained with two three-starred supremos, Michel Guérard – at the helm of Les Prés d’Eugénie in western France – and Alain Ducasse – who retained top scores at the Plaza Athénée in Paris and the Louis XV in Monaco. Both sent him messages of congratulations, lauding their “disciplined”, “humble” and “passionate” disciple.
Three Michelin stars mean exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey; two are for excellent cooking, worth a detour; one denotes a very good restaurant in its category.
François Simon, Le Figaro‘s food critic, said the Michelin today had an impossible task as whereas in the past “all restaurants practiced in the same bourgeois registre”, now “gastronomy has become technically impossible to rank” given the bewildering array of tastes on styles on offer.