- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

THE PERFECTIONIST: LIFE AND DEATH IN HAUTE CUISINE

By Rudolph Chelminski

Gotham Books, $27.50, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS

On February 24, 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau, after supervising the preparation of a sumptuous $267 truffled chicken at his celebrated restaurant, La Cote d’Or, carefully folded his apron just so, drove home for his usual afternoon nap — and shot himself in the head.

The news of his suicide shocked France, for the ebullient Loiseau, 52, was to all appearances at the top of his game. He was one of only 25 French chefs awarded Europe’s highest culinary accolade — three stars in the Michelin Guide. His 10-million-dollar hotel-restaurant in the Burgundy town of Saulieu offered the perfect retreat for whacked-out celebrities and weary captains of industry, with 32 opulent suites, three dining rooms, a spa, two heated pools, an 18th century billiards table, a library, a monumental wooden staircase wrapped around a glass enclosed elevator, and a glorious English garden at the center of it all.

Loiseau was happily married with three young children and was well regarded by his fellow chefs. He once said he wanted to be to haute cuisine what Pele was to soccer, and he succeeded in that too. Why did such a man take his own life? Journalist Rudolph Chelminski attempts to answer that question in “The Perfectionist,” and along the way offers a fascinating peek inside the French culinary trade, interviews most of the great chefs of France, and shines light on the mysterious workings of the Michelin Guide.

Several theories for chef Loiseau’s demise were put forward by the media, foremost among them death by guidebook. Early that February La Cote d’Or had been downgraded by the Gault/Millau guidebook from 19 points to 17, and an article in Le Figaro had coyly repeated rumors that the restaurant might lose its third Michelin star.

Chef Loiseau expected the worst. Yet when the 2003 guide was published in mid-February and La Cote d’Or retained its three stars, he was not comforted. Le Figaro struck again, offering the theory that Bernard Loiseau was “living on borrowed time,” and hinting that his third star might be lifted in the 2004 Guide. (It was not and La Cote d’Or’s three stars still shine today.)

The problem with the Michelin star system is that once you are enthroned on high alongside the culinary masters of the universe, there is nowhere to go but down, a possibility that drives some chefs crazy. “Ever since [Bernard] won his third star, he had been haunted by the fear of losing it,” the restaurant’s maitre d’, Hubert Couilloud, told Mr. Chelminski. “The idea of being demoted, of becoming just a two-star chef, was intolerable.”

The author makes clear part of the problem was the chef’s style of cooking. The young Bernard had apprenticed in the kitchen of Jean and Pierre Troisgros, who, with Paul Bocuse, were among the founders of nouvelle cuisine, the movement that in the late 1960s changed French cooking. Loiseau ran with the new trend, refining it further into his own “cuisine d’essences,” a style popular in the 1980s and 90s because it met a demand for healthy cooking that emphasized purity of flavor and no fat, flourless sauces. But now Loiseau feared that he was losing ground to younger chefs, particularly those who embraced “fusion cooking,” the newest new thing that incorporates ingredients from all over the world in surprising — sometimes weird — combinations. The young Turk had become the old traditionalist and didn’t know what to do about it.

Bernard Fabre, La Cote d’Or’s accountant, sensitive to his friend’s dilemma, elaborated: “He couldn’t change, he couldn’t add foreign flavorings and he couldn’t invent gimmicks to persuade critics that he was renewing himself … . He started building a scenario of catastrophe. I’m going to lose my third star because I can’t renew myself. That’s going to make me lose money and drive me into bankruptcy, and they’ll take my hotel away from me … . You’re sick, I told him. Go take a long vacation, see a psychiatrist — do something.” But Loiseau did not take vacations or days off (how unlike the stereotypical Frenchman who seems always to be on holiday or on strike). La ote d’Or remained open 364 days a year for lunch and dinner, even though the restaurant drew few customers in winter.

The chef basked in his own celebrity, but Mr. Chelminski shows the hollow man behind the Loiseau legend, who suffered from bipolar disorder and who fell apart when he left the security blanket of La Cote d’Or. In fact the chef had had two previous breakdowns. The second in 1992 was severe enough to convince him to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed Prozac.

Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, affects one person in 100; 15 per cent of sufferers take their own lives. According to Mr. Chelminski, as the final crisis built the chef’s symptoms were visible to anyone, but he refused to see the psychiatrist again. That would have shown weakness, which did not fit his self-image of the great, strong, famous chef. The threat of losing a Michelin star was not the reason he took his life, but apparently it was the last straw.

This often entertaining biography is much more than a chronicle of Loiseau’s decline and fall. It’s worth reading for the Michelin background alone. Ditto for the history of French cuisine over the last 50 years. One of the book’s charms is its numerous footnotes, which include: a typical dinner eaten by Louis XIV (four bowls of soup, followed by pheasant, partridge, a large salad, mutton, ham, and a plateful of pastries, with fruits and jellies); English translations of naughty French words common in restaurant kitchens; how to eat an ortolan, a tiny, rare bird (first cover your head with a towel the better to “capture every last savory vapor rising upward,” then eat the bird in one crunchy mouthful, and don’t forget to spit out the beak).

While Mr. Chelminski’s portrait of his friend is unsparing, it is also a tribute to a talented, energetic man whose life’s work was providing a still point in a busy world, where people could unwind. Too bad he could never do the same for himself.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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