IT was billed as the mother of all launch parties with 1,000 of Paris's finest gracing a very chic restaurant to celebrate the release of France's new gastronomic guide, the Guide Pudlowski. Author Gilles Pudlowski was holding court over eminent food critics, while, in different sections of the room, guests helped themselves to copious quantities of marrons glacees - a typically Parisian delicacy, creamy cheeses, homemade ice cream, flavoured breads and boeuf bourguignon. The spread was sumptuous and no effort spared for Pudlowski to make inroads into the fiercely competitive world of French food guides. The lavish bash seemed to have made the right impact: within two months of the launch, around 18,000 copies of Guide Pudlowski 1994 were sold, an enviable accomplishment given that the food writer is up against such firmly established names like Gault Millau and Guide Michelin. If nothing else, the launch party proved that the French take their food - both the business and the creation of it - more seriously than almost any other culture. Restaurants say they live and die by the number of stars, chef's hats or knife-and-fork sets that appear against their names in the several guides available in Paris. Every year, the day after a guide is released, major national papers print rundowns of who's hot and who's not; slipping standards are recorded for public consumption and accolades given to those who deserve it. Customers run to try new highly-rated restaurants, and drop the ones that have fallen. The pursuit of excellent cuisine, after all, is something the French take extremely seriously. For Pudlowski to make it to the major league, he has a lot of catching up to do. The Guide Michelin, indisputably the bible of food guides, sells 650,000 copies a year, while the Gault Millau sells around 80,000. Then there are the lesser-known guides like Le Bottin Gourmand and Le Guide Lebey des Restaurants, whose sales figures fall far short of the leaders. A veteran food writer for a number of French magazines, Mr Pudlowski began compiling his own guide four years ago. ''France is still the gourmet capital of the world,'' he says. ''There are all types of food here, and nothing is copied. In Hong Kong, there are also many different varieties of food available, but even the best restaurants there are modelled along French restaurants. ''Gastronomy is like fine watches. If you want a fake Cartier you go to Hong Kong. If you want the real thing, you come to France.'' Harsh words perhaps, although Mr Pudlowski conceded that the Man Wah at the Mandarin is among the world's best. ''I use 15 food writers to try more than 2,000 restaurants in Paris over the course of a year. It is very hard work,'' he said. But he admitted that in the world of food guides, and in the eyes of restaurateurs, there is nothing as important as an inclusion in the Guide Michelin. ''We were the first guide in Europe,'' said Mr Bernard Naegellen, head of the tourism service for the international tyre company. ''Our inspectors set out to find places that were original and interesting, a selection of restaurants for all budgets.'' The format has changed very little in the 93-year history of the guide, which was originally published as a complimentary service for motorists. Despite financial pressures and increased competition from other food guides, the Michelin remains ''strictly independent.'' There is no advertising and invitations to try restaurants at the expense of the owner are, without exception, turned down. The text-less, symbol-filled format of the guide makes it accessible to all nationalities. The Gault Millau follows a close second in terms of readership and prestige. But those within the industry say standards have slipped in recent years - ever since the people behind the 35-year old Gault Millau began producing a monthly magazine critics say the guide has become ''commercial'' and has lost its objectivity. Food writers outside the Gault Millau are still laughing over a mention of a restaurant and its flamboyant owner in the latest edition. He died three years ago. ''Things like that should not happen,'' said one food writer. ''It only shows they are being careless. Maybe they are tired. It used to be a very clever guide, the first few were wonderful. But it's not the same now. It seems like they are afraid of offending anyone.'' When asked about the faux pas, Mr Claude Imbert, the editorial director of Le Point and owner of Gault Millau said: ''That was an isolated mistake. It just happened.'' Industry insiders say the oversight was an indication of how the flavour of objectivity and independence that once marked food guides has given way to competition and commercial dictates. ''It's more than politics, it's like a war,'' said a leading publicist for the French food and wine industry. ''Apart from Guide Michelin, which really stands apart because it is very credible and severe, I find it hard to believe that the other guides can be as objective as they claim to be,'' she said. ''They try and generate lots of publicity around the launching of a new guide, and every year the parties become more lavish. The whole business has become so much more competitive now.'' She said many of the smaller and lesser-known guides were ''less credible'' because, while restaurants would never pay to be included, it is a well-known fact that company dinners and business entertainment necessary to the publication would be paid for ''in kind.'' ''The restaurants and the guides do favours for each other. There is no advertising so it looks like the guides are all very independent, but inclusions are paid for in other ways,'' she said. ''They all like to think they are objective, but I say it is impossible. Perhaps that is 70 per cent true, but it is hard for a food writer not to be influenced, especially if the restaurant owner is a friend. It all depends on the relationship.'' Mr Naegellen of Guide Michelin said he hires ''inspectors'' to travel around France all year in search of new restaurants and hotels. They work anonymously, and try everything more than once before giving it a rating. ''We are totally independent because our critics pay their own bills. We don't need advertising, never accept invitations and are entirely self-financed. When we do our reviews, friendships and influence mean nothing,'' he said . ''No matter what reviewers say for other publications where the meal is paid for, it is impossible to remain objective when you've just had a free meal. We don't allow it. It's a very expensive proposition, all meals, transportation, hotels. Very, very big. But it's the only way to do it right.'' Growing competition keeps the Michelin food inspectors on their toes, said Mr Naegellen. Rival reviewers ensure they do not miss a thing. More than 11,000 French establishments are covered by this guide and separate editions are published for Italy, Holland, the United Kingdom and Ireland, Spain and Switzerland. The company is now looking at the possibility of putting out an Asian version. Mr Pudlowski has the same idea, but for the time being has to concentrate on establishing himself in the French market. ''I don't want to compete with guides like Michelin and Gault Millau. They are in a different category. My guide is different in that it includes the best restaurants, shops, wine bars, tea-rooms and fashionable places all over Paris. ''We section our list according to the different areas and give our readers a choice depending on their budget and background. We want to have a little of everything, and not just offer restaurants that are exquisite but unaffordable to most people. Thatis not what French cuisine is about, but that is what is shown to the outside world. ''Through alternative guides, people can see that they can go to a good restaurant in Paris and have an excellent meal for very reasonable money. ''The other guides are more serious perhaps. But I am the youngest, the newest and I try to be the best.'' Mr Imbert of Gault Millau, whose annual guide covers 4,000 restaurants all over France, admitted that if a restaurant was truly established, its inspectors often don't need to do yearly updates. Michelin inspectors, on the other hand, are almost finicky about giving credit to any eatery unless it has been tested more than once. ''We have a monthly magazine, but there is no relation between publicity and the visits of our inspectors. We have to keep everything separate.'' Gault Millau has a distinct advantage over its opposition in that it comes out earlier than the other guides, usually at the start of the year. The Guide Michelin is launched in March, and the Pudlowski in October, although some say that might prevent really up-to-date inclusions. ''The Gault Millau has a reputation for discovering new restaurants,'' said the food publicist. ''And when it comes to knowing the best and finest places to eat, they have the right list.'' Clearly, standards vary between all three; Guy Savoy of Chez Guy Savoy, one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, said he had achieved a top rating in Gault Millau, but only got two out of three stars in the Michelin. ''To be included in any guide is important, but the top three in Paris now are Michelin, Millau and Pudlowski. If I lose a rating in any of these, everybody notices.'' Mr Pudlowski said he often accepted invitations to dine in top restaurants from chefs and owners, especially if they were his friends. ''But it is important that my judgment is not influenced by being invited,'' he said. ''I can point out many instances when I have given a restaurant a broken plate symbol (less than satisfactory service and cuisine), even if the owner or chef is my friend. It shouldn't make a difference.''