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GASTRONOMY

The chef who gave up his Michelin star

Julio Biosca asked the guide to withdraw the coveted award it bestowed on his restaurant

Casa Julio owner Julio Biosca decided to renounce his Michelin star.
Casa Julio owner Julio Biosca decided to renounce his Michelin star.

The first time was on November 24, 2009. Julio Biosca had gone to bed after a wine tasting with only blurry memories of what had happened that night. At 8.30 the next morning, with his head about to burst, he noticed several missed calls on his cellphone.

He thought the messages were a joke until someone sent him a picture of the famous red guide, showing the page that listed his restaurant as having one Michelin star.

They hadn’t been expecting it. They had never worked towards that goal.

“Now we’re in trouble, José Luis,” he told his business partner and maître d’.

Later came the euphoria. “It’s not nice to say so, but it was fucking amazing. We were getting a star, little old us, here in the middle of nowhere, in a place where people get lost trying to reach us!” he remembers.

His problem does not lie with the guide itself, but with “the microcosm that has grown around it”

The restaurant did not open that day, or for the next two weeks for that matter. Vacations are sacred. But life had changed: tables were booked solid, colleagues came to visit, everyone felt compelled to give them advice on all manner of details, envy occasionally reared its ugly head, and refurbishment work became a recurring occupation. It was also a time of great excitement and learning.

After that, Julio Biosca never slept well on the eve of the Michelin Guide announcements.

Then, four years later, he gave up his his star altogether. The full story, though, goes back further.

Fontanars dels Alforins is a hamlet with a population of around 1,000, located on the border between the provinces of Valencia and Alicante. This inland rural community made a living from agriculture until the real estate craze hit. In the 1940s, the Biosca family opened Casa Julio, a roadside eatery that evolved with each new generation of owners. 

In 2005, four years before receiving international recognition, Julio, 37, decided he had to stamp his own seal on the family business, which also employs his sister and his mother. He wanted to introduce the things he had learned during his studies and his training at Basque restaurant Zortziko, in Bilbao.

Julio brought back someone from Zortziko: José Luis Ungidos, who was put in charge of the new type of cuisine that Casa Julio wanted to offer.

“We were looking for something new but based on traditional gastronomy. We maintained both speeds,” says Julio, meaning that their establishment now catered to gourmets from all corners of the province but also to their regular patrons who wanted cold cuts and bread for their weekend breakfast.

The next two years were tough. Their regular customers did not accept the changes. The notion of eating smaller servings on individual plates did not fit in with the Mediterranean custom of setting generous “raciones” down in the middle of the table for all to share.

It was the beginning of the gastronomy boom in Spain, but the trend had yet to reach Fontanar dels Alforins. “Here in the village, it was regarded as nonsense,” notes Julio.

They tried a new menu every week until they hit the right note. And their growing fame finally brought a Michelin inspector to their door. He came alone, dined, paid, and asked to speak to the managers. They talked for two hours. It was 2007.

“Their working method is really good, I have no complaints,” explains Julio. “On the contrary, I would rather opt out precisely because of the respect I feel for the guide.”

Biosca is not the first chef to drop out of the select club

His problem does not lie with the publication itself, but with “the microcosm that has grown around it.”

“You start giving yourself airs. And when everyone tells you you’re the best, the day you fail to get the second star you get pissed,” he notes.

No more Michelin employees were detected at the restaurant after that first visit. Two years later, the star arrived.

Having Michelin stars is not a source of joy for everyone, and Julio Biosca is not the first chef to drop out of the select club. On February 24, 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau blew his brains out with a hunting rifle when rumors began circulating that he would soon lose his third star. He was already suffering from depression, but his widow blamed it on the press.

Chef Alain Senderens decided to give up his three stars in 2005 and opened a debate about the falseness and servitude that define certain sectors of so-called haute cuisine. The last chef to follow this lead was Belgium’s Fredrick Dhooghe, who stated earlier this year that he wanted to be free “to serve a roast chicken, without being told that this type of dish is beneath a restaurant with a Michelin star.”

A former inspector for the guide says a star sometimes stops chefs from doing what they would like to

The reasons for bowing out of the Michelin club can be ideological, practical, health-related – Catalan chef Joan Borràs slowed down his pace after being diagnosed with a brain tumor – and even financial. In fact, practically none of these restaurants are profitable. Ferran Adrià, Spain’s foremost kitchen guru, once revealed that he was losing as much as half a million euros a year at elBulli, the world-famous restaurant that became a place of pilgrimage for global food lovers.

As Pascal Rémy, a former inspector for the Michelin Guide with 16 years’ experience, explained in his insider book L’inspecteur se met à table (or ,The inspector sits down at the table), any restaurant that gets this distinction bestowed upon it “is going to need more money.”

Rémy holds that restaurants get trapped in a vicious circle and chefs sometimes stop doing what they would like, instead doing what they feel Michelin would like them to do.

The former inspector also claims that there is a link between the company’s tire business and the number of stars in each country.

“They put me in charge of putting together the team of inspectors that would work in Japan, and they told us to be generous. It was a country that had strongly resisted Michelin until then,” he recalls. EL PAÍS unsuccessfully tried to reach Michelin for comment.

The guide was created in 1900 as an ideal travel companion for drivers forced to spend a few hours or a night in an unplanned location because of a breakdown. Today, people like José Carlos Capel, a food critic for EL PAÍS, share the idea that Michelin’s generosity – or thriftiness – with its bestowal of stars depends on the business strategy for its tire technology.

Their working method is good. I would rather opt out precisely because of the respect I feel for the guide”

Chef Julio Biosca

Still, Capel feels that renouncing a Michelin star like Casa Julio did is a rare occurrence. “It might increase the pressure, but most chefs would kill for a star,” he notes.

In Spain, 169 restaurants now share 203 Michelin stars.

Julio Biosca put up with the pressure for four years. Then, in the summer of 2013, as he was celebrating his birthday at a highly reputed restaurant, he saw a waiter approach his table with a little spray bottle, and he feared the worst.

“And now,” said the waiter, his finger poised over the nozzle, “our sherry aroma.”

Something cracked. This restaurant had one Michelin star, just like his. It also had a tasting menu, and a few other traits he had seen over and over in endless restaurants.

“A tasting menu has to be like an artist’s work, it’s the only way it can make sense,” says Julio.

Our quality has not declined, but our menu is simpler”

It was a turning point. “I felt I wanted to get away from all this,” he recalls, sitting inside his own restaurant.

He and his partner wrote to the Michelin guide, requesting to drop out of the list. The email apparently never arrived, and Casa Julio once again received a star in 2014. But by then, Julio and José Luis had decided to end their project. They were very grateful to Michelin, but very tired. They no longer believed in some of the basic elements that define this type of restaurant, and they each went their separate ways.

“Our quality has not declined, but our menu is simpler now,” says Julio. Two employees were let go, and the tasting menu is gone. But a few dishes remain, and Julio can now live according to his current gastronomic principles. He has chosen a life outside the great Michelin constellation.