The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine

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An unforgettable portrait of France’s legendary chef, and the sophisticated, unforgiving world of French gastronomy Bernard Loiseau was one of only twenty-five French chefs to hold Europe’s highest culinary award, three stars in the Michelin Red Guide, and only the second chef to be personally awarded the Legion of Honor by a head of state. Despite such triumphs, he shocked the culinary world by taking his own life in February 2003. The GaultMillau guidebook had recently dropped its ratings of Loiseau’s restaurant, and rumors swirled that he was on the verge of losing a Michelin star (a prediction that proved to be inaccurate). Journalist Rudolph Chelminski, who befriended Loiseau three decades ago and followed his rise to the pinnacle of French restaurateurs, now gives us a rare tour of this hallowed culinary realm. The Perfectionist is the story of a daydreaming teenager who worked his way up from complete obscurity to owning three famous restaurants in Paris and rebuilding La Côte d’Or, transforming a century-old inn and restaurant that had lost all of its Michelin stars into a luxurious destination restaurant and hotel. He started a line of culinary products with his name on them, appeared regularly on television and in the press, and had a beautiful, intelligent wife and three young children he adored—Bernard Loiseau seemed to have it all. An unvarnished glimpse inside an echelon filled with competition, culture wars, and impossibly high standards, The Perfectionist vividly depicts a man whose energy and enthusiasm won the hearts of staff and clientele, while self-doubt and cut-throat critics took their toll.


Rudolph Chelminski
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The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine

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A world-class chef with a lovely wife and three young children shoots himself to death.  Was it because of mounting debt and a bad run at the stock market?  Did his intense mood swings finally take him over the edge?  Or did he kill himself out of despair when GaultMillau knocked two points off his score and it was rumored that Michelin was about to follow suit and take one of his cherished three stars away?  An answer of “yes†to any or all of these would be very sad, but not really enough for a full-on biography.  However journalist Rudolph Chelminski approaches the question of why Bernard Loiseau, his friend of thirty years, died by exploring how French chefs lived and worked in the later half of the twentieth century. 

Chelminski does a fine job of integrating condensed profiles of many of the major French chefs with brief histories of the culture of travel and provincial inns (why drive from Paris to somewhere in the boonies or even stop for lunch at an auberge that's off the beaten track on your way to the coast?), the culture of guides and their ratings (Michelin, et al.), the culture of new cuisine styles (in the service of impressing the Michelin, et al.), and the culture of culinary apprenticeship (fraternity hazing meets the Marine Corps Training Depot on Parris Island: “The Few, The Proud†and the tyrannized).  The sections on the development of the Michelin red guide are especially intriguing and make one want to read more about this monastic, secret society (Dan Brown, take note).

By spending more time on Loiseau's culinary rather than his genetic heritage, Chelminski makes the important point that professional cooking is as much (if not more) a product of internal evolution as external, cultural trend.  And this includes attitude and approach as well as ingredients and recipes.  He traces Loiseau's roots to Fernand Point and his inn in Vienne, La Pyramide.  As Paul Bocuse, one of Point's most famous apprentices, observed, rather than the Parisian model of looking for ways to push left-overs, Point insisted on what Bocuse termed “la cuisine du moment,†that the kitchen begin from scratch each day, using only the freshest products available.  The other famous Point apprentices that Chelminski focuses on for the second generation are Jean and Pierre Troisgros, who would later oversee Loiseau's own apprenticeship.  Their Roanne restaurant, Les Frà¨res Troisgros, received its third star at that time this provided Loiseau with his first taste of the Michelin obsession that would dog him for the rest of his life. 

After his time in the Troisgros kitchen, he went to work for Claude Verger in Paris.  Verger had not gone through the traditional training that required absolute fidelity to tradition:  “When I [Verger] asked them why they did a dish this way or that way, they told me that was how it had been done for the last hundred or two hundred years, so that was the way it should always be done.  I didn't agree with them.  Ninety-nine percent of what I was eating in their places was de la merde.† He had no respect for empty-headed adherence to methods that no longer appealed to modern tastes.  Instead, he opted for a lighter, simpler cuisine—by way of Michel Guérard--characterized by very brief, last minute sautées in butter or olive oil, rather than lengthy stewing or boiling.

In his own establishment, the Cà´te d'Or in Salieu, Loiseau took this fresh, light cuisine even further.  Though not specifically aimed at the spa crowd, he tried to keep his food as simple and pure as possible.  He restricted himself to three flavors per plate:  the main ingredient with an intense sauce that reinforced it, and two other “sub-dishes.† One of the best examples was his signature creation:  jambonnettes de grenouilles à   la purée d'ail et au jus de persil. (frogs' legs with garlic purée and parsley juice.)  Chelminski's description of the development as well as the execution of this dish is an education in itself.  The philosophy, chemistry, aesthetics, kitchen techniques, and even politics that went into this dish are astonishing.  How can one not appreciate the creativity and vision that goes into the work of such men and women. 

But deviations from the norm can occasionally lead one to the ridiculous.  Loiseau insisted on deglazing with water and, early on, dubbed his technique cuisine à  l'eau (water cooking).  The story goes that during a visit to Salieu, Paul Bocuse and some other chefs were taking a walk after lunch.  When they came to a river, Bocuse, who was Loiseau's friend as well as his mentor, quipped, “Now, isn't that a shame.  We should tell Bernard about all that good sauce going to waste.â€

Occasional absurdities aside, Loiseau was devoted to the Cà´te d'Or, his employees (in whom he inspired great loyalty as well as forbearance), but, perhaps most of all, he had consecrated himself to the pursuit of perfection as verified and validated by the critics.  Loiseau had been talking about getting three Michelin stars from the time of his apprenticeship.  And even after reaching the glittering summit, he never ceased fearing that any moment he could lose his footing.  Chelminski astutely notes that not every chef of Loiseau's generation or training sought the Michelin imprimatur.  Out of their “class†at Roanne, only Loiseau and Guy Savoy “chose to run the body-strewn obstacle course.† Claude Perraudin, who had studied under the Troisgros brothers, Guérard, and Bocuse, “resolutely turned his back on the search for any stars at all—too damn much trouble.† Instead he opened a modest bistrot in Paris whose tables are always full.  His establishment is not even mentioned in the Michelin, but even the president de la république eats there.  Perraudin explained, “I always kept my feet on the ground.  Bernard was more of a dreamer.â€

But the price of dreaming “the bestâ€â€”or at least being perceived as the best—might have been too high for Loiseau, who clearly suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Add that to the witches' brew of jealousy, gossip, financial risk, and time pressures (no holidays, no down-time) of the high-end restaurant business and you have a brain filled with unexploded ordnance just waiting for the slightest jolt.  The Perfectionist builds its case to the chilling and all but inevitable end.  The reader is left seeing no way out for the charming, gifted, but frantic and despairing Loiseau.

I do have a few minor quibbles.  Although most of the book is clear and straightforward, Chelminski falls victim to the occasional snotty remark (references to “professional anorexics†get a bit tired after the first two or three times) and to a mannered, self-conscious phrasing that distracts the reader. 

However these lapses of style are less important than the book's tendency to over-simplify its own argument.  Chelminski does a fine job of illustrating the pressures and complexities of maintaining a prestige hotel/restaurant in the provinces with a public gone mad for tricks and novelties rather than comfort and taste.  But, over and over, the book seems to want ignore and even undermine its own achievements in order to find a single clear villain to blame, the lone gunman:  the press and its ratings systems.  And while repeatedly citing serious symptoms of mental illness, Chelminski oversimplifies his brief descriptions of bi-polar disorder, using casual sources—one article via an internet site and Dr. Ladislas Kiss, a psychiatrist who never personally examined or even met Loiseau but followed his career through the media.  Chelminski diagnoses and dismisses almost at the same moment, blaming Loiseau's cycles of depression on the disease or insecurity, the time of year or how many people were seated in one of his dining rooms, his perfectionism or his refusal to deviate from the purity of le style Loiseau. 

However, Chelminski does quite clearly point out the dilemma Loiseau and his staff faced when his mania had become the heart and soul of his restaurant as well as the man.  Most medications can't ease the lows without dampening some of the highs.  And apparently neither Loiseau nor his business could handle the loss of his high-octane energy.  So he quit the initial medication he was given and let his psyche loose again to run the race at will. 

The ultimate irony is that apparently Loiseau himself was the source of the rumor that the Cà´te d'Or was about to lose one of its stars.  At a meeting with Derek Brown--then editor-in-chief of Le Guide Michelin—he received the news that some readers had written to say that his sauces weren't as appealing as they once were.  Seeing Loiseau so distressed, Brown did his best to reassure the man without coming right out and saying that his stars were secure.  But the defeated chef heard only the criticism, and telephoned all his friends, telling them he was sure he was going to be demoted.  He himself started the rumor that made its way into the papers and, of course, back to the hapless Loiseau.  And though he didn't lose any stars, he did lose two points from an old ally, GaultMillau, and the press began digging his grave.  He obliged them on February 24, 2003.


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