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French court to rule on chef's 'cheddargate' row

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Nanterre (France) (AFP)

A Paris court will rule Tuesday on whether the Michelin restaurant guide must hand over its reasons for stripping a French chef of his third star, a move that could prove a watershed moment for the world of fine dining.

Marc Veyrat known as much for his ubiquitous black Savoyard hat as his "botanical" creations from local herbs and produce, has denounced "incompetent" inspectors -- not least because they claimed he used English Cheddar cheese in a souffle.

The showman chef launched the unprecedented lawsuit after his Maison des Bois restaurant in the French Alps lost the third star last January -- just a year after he won it.

It was a shock demotion after Veyrat's remarkable comeback, nine years after he was forced to stop cooking because of a skiing accident, and three years after his restaurant was destroyed in a fire.

At a stormy meeting in March with the guidebook's new director Gwendal Poullennec, named just a few months before the 2019 listings, the chef was told a scallop's texture was "cottony" -- Veyrat says it was in fact a dish of local fish.

"I have a lot of respect for Michelin in France... but they made a mistake in my case, and they need to recognise it," Veyrat told AFP recently.

The chef wants to see Michelin forced to reveal the proof that inspectors ate at his restaurant and the written notes of their tastings.

Veyrat, 69, also wants a symbolic one euro ($1.12) in damages for a depression that followed the verdict.

If the court forces Michelin to hand over its judging notes, it would set a precedent that could be seized by other disgruntled chefs.

"I really don't need them," Veyrat said, saying business is up seven percent over the past year.

"Even between Christmas and New Year's Day, we're fully booked. We've never been this busy," he added.

"At this rate, I wish they'd take away all my stars!"

- 'Narcissistic diva' -

Michelin's lawyers have denounced the lawsuit as an abuse of the legal system by a "narcissistic diva" and are demanding 30,000 euros in damages and compensation.

"It's a question of respecting the freedom of criticism and opinion in our country," Michelin's lawyer Richard Malka told AFP last week.

"This freedom cannot disappear just because of the susceptibility of some public figure or another who can legitimately be criticised," he said.

At a November court hearing, Malka argued that Michelin guides are for clients, "and are not owned by chefs."

If the judges rule in Veyrat's favour, he said, "which critic -- food, literary, cinema or other -- will still dare to write without seeing his hand tremble?"

That claim was rejected by Veyrat's lawyer Emmanuel Ravanas, who said the chef has long since grown accustomed to being judged severely over his pricey creations.

"We're not here to forbid criticism, we want to check that criteria exist and that they have been applied correctly," he told the court.

"You don't have the right to write what ever you want using the excuse of freedom of expression," he said.

The self-taught Veyrat has spent most of his life cooking in his home village of Manigod 1,600 metres (5,200 feet) up the Alps near Annecy.

Just days before the November hearing, Veyrat was named one of the 10 immortals of haute cuisine by the rival French Gault & Millau guide, alongside legends like Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy.

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