Tall, groomed and fashionably presented in a dark suit and fine leather shoes, 40-year-old Pascal Remy enters the hushed hotel bar looking more like a conformist than a renegade. Factor in his courteous manner and genial spirit and it seems even harder to believe this dapper Frenchman could single-handedly threaten to bring down one of his country's most glorious icons. For more than 100 years the legendary Michelin Red Guide, the food-lovers' weighty companion, whose fearsome ratings can make or break the fortunes of chefs and restaurants, had wielded its awesome power beneath a shroud of secrecy. No one knew how the guide awarded its famous stars; no one knew whom the inspectors were or how they operated. That is until one of them spilled the exotic beans. After 16 years as one of Michelin's undercover inspectors, Remy did what no other employee had ever dared: he lifted the lid on the notoriously classified practices of gastronomy's most esteemed and covert institution. In a juicy, tell-all book recently published in France he discloses a succession of poisonous anecdotes taken from diaries he kept during his time with the organisation that accuse it of favouritism, frugality and falsity. Remy alleges the guide is motivated by commercial forces rather than customer service; that many of its three-star restaurants undeservedly retain that honour because they are considered 'untouchable'; and that ratings are influenced by aggressive letter-writing campaigns and powerful, media-savvy chefs. In L'Inspecteur se met a table, a clever pun meaning 'the inspector sits down at the table', but that also means 'the inspector speaks up', he shatters the widely held belief that Michelin has a formidable army of anonymous inspectors regularly trooping through each restaurant. Reading from a crumpled, hand-scrawled note pulled from his black leather briefcase, Remy says that, contrary to Michelin's figures, there are only five inspectors for France (responsible for 4,000 restaurants) and 39 in total for Europe. It is a myth, he claims, that every establishment is reviewed every year. 'When I joined in 1988 there were 11 inspectors,' he says in a low voice, as if to stop others hearing what he has already so boldly publicised. 'I guess that was normal because we were supposed to be about 12. But little by little some retired, others left to do other things, and in 2003 we found ourselves with only five. 'Of course, now they have reacted and hired another three, I believe,' he adds, chuckling. 'But it's still not a lot.' The assault on the big red book with its global cult following has left the culinary world bubbling and Michelin boiling. Until Remy began panning it, the highly influential guide, with its trained, 'incorruptible' inspectors, enjoyed the kind of exalted reputation no competitor has ever matched. Yet Remy insists he did not set out to stir up controversy. He says he initially approached Michelin to publish his memoirs as a humorous and light-hearted look at the life of a restaurant reviewer. After reading his manuscript, company executives, unsurprisingly, found it hard to swallow. They rejected Remy's proposal and instead offered him a promotion and a 30 per cent pay rise if he agreed not to publish what Michelin described, in a confidential memo provided by Remy, as 'facts making an attack on the Red Guide and Michelin ... manufacturing secrets as well as attacks on the personality of Michelin's staff members and hoteliers and restaurateurs'. Remy refused to sign and was fired a month later for 'grave cause'. Michelin says he violated the company's confidentiality agreement and asked for too much money (300,000 euros, or HK$2.8 million) as compensation for not publishing the book. Remy counters that the only secrets he was contractually prohibited from revealing were related to the manufacture of rubber and tyres, Michelin's bread and butter. And he says the contents of his book should not be considered secrets. 'I only wrote about my life as an inspector and about my work!' he exclaims. 'But Michelin considers these things one should not talk about. Everything is secret to them, even the most banal things.' Ironically, six months before he was fired, Remy was feted as a model employee; Michelin even rewarded his good work with a 5,000-euro bonus. Now Remy is suing his former employer for wrongful dismissal. 'How can they sack someone for wanting to publish his memoirs?' he asks. Yet in a country where food is a religion and the Red Guide its bible, Remy's irreverent anecdotes border on the sacrilegious. And according to Michelin, they are all the more blasphemous because they are simply untrue. In a small conference room at the company's modern headquarters in Paris, the director of publications, 60-year-old Briton Derek Brown, answers the allegations with barely concealed disdain. 'It's very convenient to say things that captured some headlines without telling the whole story. It's a sensationalist thing to do,' he begins. 'Does one really believe that we could have existed for 104 years, have sold or distributed 30 million copies of the guide for France alone, and done it with such disregard for integrity and a serious approach? It beggars belief.' The Michelin Red Guide was indeed created to serve the customer. Developed in 1900 as a marketing tool to help motorists find the best hotels on the back roads of France, it was initially distributed free with the company's tyres. In 1926 the guide first issued stars to those establishments in possession of a 'renowned table' and five years later awarded its first three-star ratings to restaurants offering 'exceptional cuisine ... worth a special journey'. Customer service was still the priority, says Remy, when he joined the guide in 1988. But he claims as competition increased and manufacturing costs soared, the company's focus shifted to the bottom line. 'We had always believed we were working for the reader, but little by little we realised we were working more for profit,' he laments. 'We were told there was no longer any time to visit all the restaurants and that we had to finish our work more quickly because we had to make money.' Jean-Claude Ribaut, a veteran food writer for French newspaper Le Monde, confirms Michelin began to change direction when the son of company patriarch Francois Michelin took control in 1999 - a year when the Red Guide was in the red. 'At a press conference, Edouard Michelin told us every department of his business must be profitable, including the Red Guide,' recalls Ribaut. He adds that Michelin gave the guide's management four years to balance its books, which led to widespread restructuring and redundancy for 1,500 em-ployees, including some inspectors. Remy complains Michelin's profit-orientated policies ultimately penalise the reader. Perhaps the most damning accusation he flings is that Michelin blindly awards three stars - the ultimate accolade in gastronomy - to the same clique of 'untouchable' chefs: the veterans who enjoy international recognition and the media-savvy mavericks who know how to manipulate the press. 'Very old chefs such as Paul Bocuse [whose restaurant in Lyon has enjoyed three-star status since 1965] have done a lot for France overseas, so we cannot speak badly of them,' explains Remy. 'Then there is another category, the super-powerful. Chefs such as Alain Ducasse are very powerful in the media. We are afraid of them because they have so much publicity.' Remy says when Ducasse's Louis XV restaurant in Monaco lost its third star in 1997 and 2001, the chef 'shook heaven and Earth' to win it back. In the The New York Times Ducasse admitted he lobbied Michelin to have it restored. 'I met the Guide management,' he said, 'as I do once a year. I told them they would have to give me back the star because the Louis XV is an excellent restaurant; it's a fabulous machine.' And about Remy, he commented: 'I'm surprised someone can stay 16 years working for a company then say bad things about it. You agree with a system or you don't.' Brown, however, rejects the charge that the star was restored because of any campaigning. 'What's in it for Michelin to be lobbied by an individual chef?' he asks. 'If we had done that on the basis of somebody lobbying us and the customers didn't find it accurate, they would write and say, 'What are you talking about? That's not a three-star restaurant!' There's no possible way we can be influenced like that because we are not working for the profession. We are working for the customers and I can't insist on that enough.' Brown says Ducasse originally lost his star because he was 'not cooking three-star food', although French food critics say Louis XV is one of France's best restaurants and wonder why it ever lost its star. Meanwhile, chefs who suddenly earn the distinction wonder what they did to deserve it. Marc Meneau, whose Burgundy restaurant L'Esperance was upgraded back to three-star status for the 2004 edition of the guide, says he did nothing differently to lose that third star several years ago, nor did he make any improvements to have it awarded again. 'I didn't change a thing in the way I work, because if I had changed anything I would have lost all my clients,' he says. 'We will never understand the system. When we lose the star, we ask why we lost it. When we earn it, we ask why we earned it.' These are questions food critics and chefs across France have been asking for decades. As Ribaut says, 'Michelin never justifies its choices. Everything they do is inscrutable.' While it may be wiser to dismiss the mystery as one of the vagaries of a highly subjective profession, the Michelin star, symbolised in the guide as a deceptively innocuous white flower, can be a matter of life and death for those in the industry. The power of the restaurant review was painfully illustrated in February last year when, three-star Burgundy chef and major culinary player Bernard Loiseau, who had been docked two points by the rival Gault-Millaut guide less than a week before, committed suicide, apparently afraid that Michelin too would bring down his rating. The perceived pressure of keeping up with Michelin's apparently lofty standards compelled one leading chef to give back his single star last year. Matthias Dahlinger, the owner and chef of Eichhalde, a French restaurant in Freiburg, Germany, claimed the rating was too expensive to maintain. 'Just to be eligible you have to have a minimum of 250 wines on your menu,' Dahlinger explained. Brown retorts that Michelin 'never told anyone to cook one-star food', adding that it is the profession and not the guide that sets the standards. While Dahlinger admits he was never asked to achieve or maintain any level of cooking, service or decor, he says, 'Once you have a Michelin star guests show up with certain expectations.' Yet despite the deluxe connotations of the star, it is a judgment on the food alone. A restaurant that pairs excellent meals with plastic cutlery and paper plates could theoretically earn the distinction. And while not every starred restaurant in the guide is opulent, the 10 three-star establishments of Paris at least epitomise first-class service and luxurious decor - with prices to match. Although Michelin's inspectors are said to be equipped with 'highly trained' palates, their decisions can never be less than subjective. According to Remy, an internal study conducted by Michelin revealed up to 90 per cent of customers are unable to tell the difference between a two-star and a three-star meal. Given the public's unsophisticated taste buds, Remy says Michelin's bosses, not its inspectors, can and do make the final decisions on which restaurants are given two- and which three-star ratings. 'A former director of Michelin once said to us, 'Democracy stops at the door of business,'' recalls Remy. 'While decisions are made democratically most of the time,' he adds, 'there are certain occasions, with big restaurants or sensitive places that bring consequences, when they are made unilaterally by the directors.' Brown, who worked as a Michelin inspector for 30 years, rejects the charge. He insists all decisions are based on teamwork and is equally dismissive of claims that Michelin's ratings are influenced by letters from readers, chefs and their supporters or detractors. 'We have specialist people who deal only with the correspondence. We're not completely stupid,' he says. 'When a lot of letters are suddenly received saying a lot about a restaurant we have not experienced ourselves, we know something's going on. We can read between the lines, believe me.' Brown says letters from readers do, however, influence which restaurants are visited and how often. He says inspectors are sent to investigate recommended places and double-check those criticised. He admits not every establishment is visited every year ('We never said they were') and that on average inspectors visit hotels and restaurants in the 11 European countries covered by the guide about every 18 months. However, the best tables, those with star ratings, are tested much more often, he says, perhaps more than 10 times a year. And as for the real number of inspectors working for Michelin, Brown reveals a figure for the first time: 70 for all Europe. And no, he says, there is no need to hire more. Remy responds by claiming that because of France's 35-hour working week, inspectors can visit only five or six establishments a day (dining in two restaurants) as opposed to the 10 they might have managed daily in the past. And because they can eat only 200 to 250 meals a year, he says, there is no longer any time to discover the tiny, lesser-known restaurants in the French countryside. Remy insists that consequently the guide rates only the 'big names' and 'big places', although a glance through the book's exhaustive list of establishments suggests he might be exaggerating. From Abbeville to Zoufftgen, obscure eateries regularly make an appearance, although few receive stars. And in the good old days for which Remy pines, Michelin rated only those chefs who owned their restaurants. Chefs working for hotels and other large enterprises are also included these days. Ducasse, who received his three stars in Monaco in 1989, was the first salaried chef to obtain the distinction. Ribaut believes the second big change in Michelin's policies occurred in 2002, when three chefs with vastly different cooking styles - academic, sensual and avant-garde - all earned the same three stars. And in another departure from tradition, Asian restaurants are now rated by Michelin. 'I believe Michelin places more importance today on what people are asking for,' says Ribaut. 'The development of travel, tourism and the restless desire for different tastes has made the clientele more eclectic, so the guide was forced to adapt.' Michelin's surrender to market forces was evidently a bitter pill for Remy. Given Michelin's pervasive power, many chefs refuse to comment on the scandal or on Remy's book, although Meneau sums up the general reaction: 'When one has been fed by a business, one does not spit on that business,' he says. The decision to air Michelin's dirty linen may well have made Remy a pariah among France's culinary clique. Though Remy refuses to comment on his relationship with his former colleagues, Brown describes them as 'very angry'. But Remy maintains he did what he had to do. 'I wrote to sound the alarm to our readers, to tell them this guide should be used only as a reference; do not fall for the marketing,' he says. 'I feel totally at ease with myself because I believe in transparency. Secrecy is outmoded.' How much of an impact will Remy's revelations have on Michelin? The only barometer is sales of the Red Guide. While Brown says the 2004 edition, published in February, is selling as well as ever, Michelin has taken the precaution of placing full-page advertise-ments in newspapers to defend its reputation. 'In guaranteeing recognised and constant quality, it is neither more nor less than a vade mecum for an agreeable journey,' declares the company's smiling trademark figure, Bibendum, otherwise known as the Michelin Man. And it appears the bulbous mascot has not lost his believers. Meneau says business at L'Esperance, with its restored star, increased by 15 per cent in March and 50 per cent last month. While he was careful to insist the figures indicate little, it is tempting to conclude that despite the strife Michelin's mighty Red Guide retains its clout.