Despair at the Top of France's Food Chain
By WILLIAM GRIMES Published: June 1, 2005
Life and Death in Haute Cuisine
By Rudolph Chelminski
354 pages. Gotham Books. $27.50.
On Feb. 24, 2003, a bulletin interrupted the 11 o'clock news on French television. Bernard Loiseau had been found dead in his home, a suicide at age 52.
No one needed to ask who Bernard Loiseau was. The chef and owner of the three-star Côte d'Or, a restaurant in Burgundy, he was a media darling, an upbeat, tireless self-promoter whose big smile and bouncy personality made him a natural for television programs and splashy magazine features. With an adoring wife and three children, and an expanding empire - three Paris bistros, a line of prepared foods - he seemed to have it all, right down to the Legion of Honor, conferred by François Mitterrand, one of his biggest fans.
But there was another Bernard Loiseau, the haunted, desperate man whom Rudolph Chelminski in "The Perfectionist" calls "the prince of paradox and the king of smokescreen." According to the French press, he was driven to suicide by a slight demotion in the Gault-Millau restaurant guide and fear of losing a star in the next edition of the Michelin guide.
The truth was more complicated. But in a sense, the papers were right: the same cultural forces that created Loiseau and drove him to excel alsodrove him to the depths of despair. He died a poet's death. "The artist has left the stage in full glory," said a speaker at his memorial service, attended by all 24 of France's three-star chefs. "We feel as much like applauding as crying."
Mr. Chelminski, the author of "The French at Table," knew Loiseau well. Better yet, he knows France well and the exalted role of fine dining in French culture. "The Perfectionist" tells, in rich detail, the story of Loiseau's rapid rise and desperate efforts to stay on top, but this cautionary tale is also a deeply informed guide to the last half century of French cuisine, a brilliant chapter whose ending is uncertain.
No one predicted great things of young Bernard Loiseau. As an apprentice under the great Troisgros brothers in Roanne, he once distinguished himself by absentmindedly dumping a shovelful of coal into a pan on the stove. But luck was on his side. By happy accident he soon found himself at an up-and-coming Paris bistro run by Claude Verger, a whirlwind promoter of the then-revolutionary nouvelle cuisine.
Loiseau quickly took to the new style, which called for high-quality fresh ingredients, clearly expressed flavors and cooking done for each diner at the last minute. Gault-Millau, a feisty new guide intent on creating new culinary stars, pushed him relentlessly, and before long, Loiseau, still in his early 20's, became the talk of the Paris restaurant scene.
In 1975, Mr. Verger bought the Côte d'Or, a venerable auberge in the little town of Saulieu, and installed Loiseau in its kitchen. There he developed his signature "cuisine des essences" and embarked on his obsessive, self-destructive quest for three Michelin stars.
Mr. Chelminski, a perfectionist in his own way, goes into great detail explaining both the cuisine and the nature of the quest: Loiseau turned to classic Burgundian dishes but took out the heaviness, following the example of the Troisgros brothers and Michel Guérard's experiments in ultra-light spa cuisine. Each flavor would express itself with maximum clarity and intensity in dishes that, although based on tradition, would spring a surprise, like his nettle soup with snails.
Loiseau's signature entree was an ingenious take on frogs' legs, usually served in a pool of butter with chopped garlic and parsley. By cutting away the meat at the bottom of the leg he created jambonettes, or miniature hams, meant to be eaten with the fingers. Sautéed in butter, they were arranged around a pool of bright green parsley puree with smooth dollops of pureed garlic. Readers not prepared to spend several pages on this one dish should not bother with "The Perfectionist." They will miss the point.
Driving himself like a madman, Loiseau took on a mountain of debt, determined to wrest three stars out of Michelin by creating a perfect restaurant with a perfect hotel attached. To woo the press, he dashed up to Paris constantly for quick television or magazine interviews. Loiseau would stop at nothing, not even posing for a German magazine with snails crawling on his head.
The Côte d'Or got its three stars in 1985. But fame and adulation only brought uncertainty, ever-harsher self-criticism and black depressions. "If one customer out of 80 was unhappy with his meal, it could destroy the whole evening for him," recalled Hubert Couilloud, Loiseau's maître d'hôtel. "He didn't need approval, he needed to be adored. Unanimously."
With time, the fickle press tired of Loiseau, even Gault-Millau. New stars rose on the horizon. New trends, like fusion cuisine, swept over France. Loiseau, steeped in French tradition, was bewildered. His day, it seemed, might be over.
In the end, it was all too much, especially when rumors began circulating that the Côte d'Or's third Michelin star was in jeopardy. In fact, the talk might have originated with Loiseau himself, frantic with anxiety. Finally, he took a shotgun, given to him as a birthday present by his wife, and turned it on himself.
When the 2004 Michelin guide came out, the Côte d'Or retained its third star. It still has three stars today.