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Hunger for award can eat you up

Chef Marcus Wareing has two Michelin stars but desperately wants a third. Gordon Ramsay used to have three but lost one earlier this year. Marco Pierre White also had three but gave them back to Michelin.

French chef Bernard Loiseau was so depressed by rumours hinting he was about to lose one of his three stars that he shot himself dead with his hunting rifle.

His wife, Dominique, found his body. She decided to open the restaurant open that evening, reasoning that if customers had booked a table, they were entitled to have their meal. "We sell happiness," she said.

When it comes to the warped values of the Michelin star culture, madness truly is the operative word, and it was perfectly delineated in this excellent documentary, presented by William Sitwell.

For a food writer, Sitwell is remarkably cynical about the Michelin star system, which began life a century ago as a humble guidebook listing petrol stations and telling French motorists where they could find a decent place to eat while having a tyre changed.

Sitwell began his journey in the kitchen of Marcus Wareing's swanky restaurant in London's Knightsbridge.

Wareing grudgingly let him prepare chestnuts for a crab starter. They have to be sliced to a specific thickness and placed on the plate at a specific angle.

"Are they okay?" enquired Sitwell. "Just," said the wearying Wareing. Sitwell then got to prepare a whole starter by himself.

"So it's a one-star dish . . . a no-star dish?" he asked playfully. "It's a two-star dish, it's just that you did it wrong," said Wareing. "You f***ed it up." Then he tossed it in the bin.

Outside the restaurant later, exhausted and fed up, Sitwell was scornful: "What were we doing in there? Cooking lunch! Is that really going to change the world?"

Marco Pierre White told Sitwell he returned his Michelin stars because the awards have become "a joke".

He said: "They dish out stars like confetti. When you give chefs a star and they're not in the kitchen, you have to question their integrity."

Raymond Blanc, who has two stars, also questions Michelin's integrity. "I don't cook for stars, I cook for excellence," he said.

Nonetheless, Blanc thinks a restaurant is justified in hiking its prices if it wins a star.

Sitwell visited the Michelin HQ in Paris -- "The building looks spookily like MI6" -- and met director Jean-Luc Narait, who was as guarded about discussing the way Michelin's undercover inspectors work as a John Le Carre spymaster organising an assassination.

Narait refused to let Sitwell interview him in his personal office, for fear he might meet an inspector. At which point, presumably, Narait would have to have him killed.

To meet an inspector was, of course, exactly what Sitwell wanted and he eventually got his chance -- although the man insisted on being interviewed in silhouette.

Even with that, you could tell he was English, middle-aged and rather ordinary.

"It's great fun," he chortled. "It makes me feel a bit like a secret agent -- licensed to eat!"

Unfortunately, in some cases, like that of the tragic Bernard Loiseau, Michelin's secret agents are unwittingly licensed to kill as well.

TOMORROW: Pat reviews White Boy, Black Nanny (C4) and tries Living on Mars (National Geographic)

Stacey's Stars

Michelin Stars: The Madness of Perfection ****