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What Killed a Great Chef of Europe? Peers Blame Critics

Times Staff Writer

In a nation where chefs are as celebrated as artists, fashion designers or athletes, one’s standing in the culinary world can be a matter of life and death.

That’s why the news that pioneering chef Bernard Loiseau, whose three-star restaurant was the crown of an epicurean empire, was an apparent suicide brought such anguish. Leaders of France’s culinary community did not wait for the autopsy to start pointing fingers of blame Tuesday.

There is no way to know why Loiseau did what he did, but angry fellow chefs said they have good reason to believe they know what pushed their friend over the edge. Loiseau was crushed when the GaultMillau guide, a much-read food journal, recently lowered the rating of his restaurant from 19 to 17 points out of a possible 20, according to Paul Bocuse, the elder statesman of French culinary masters.

“Bravo, GaultMillau, you have won,” Bocuse snarled in an interview published by Le Parisien newspaper Tuesday. “Your evaluation probably cost the life of a man. Because I am sure that Bernard was very much affected by the loss of his two points. We can’t let ourselves be manipulated like this. I give you a star, I take it away, I give you points, I take them away. Critics are like eunuchs: They know how, but they can’t do it.”

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The director of the GaultMillau guide, Patrick Mayenobe, lamented Loiseau’s passing. He insisted that it was ludicrous to think that the chef had killed himself over a slight dip in his rating, especially because the review had offered quite a bit of praise.

“This great French chef certainly had other problems,” Mayenobe told a television interviewer. “In no way can we imagine it was a grade, a simple grade, that could have taken his life.”

There are historical precedents, however. In 1966, restaurant owner Alain Zick committed suicide after Michelin took away his two stars. A 17th century chef named Francois Vatel is believed to have killed himself because of a mishap at a meal he had prepared for King Louis XIV. And Loiseau had made it clear how high the stakes were when he all but predicted his own fate, according to a friend. Jacques Lameloise, the owner of a three-star establishment, said Loiseau once declared: “If I lose a star, I’ll kill myself.”

The body of Loiseau, 52, was found Monday evening at his home in the town of Saulieu in the Burgundy region, the site of his acclaimed La Cote d’Or restaurant. The hunting rifle with which he apparently killed himself was at his side.

Depression could have been the cause of the suicide, family and friends said. Loiseau was a tormented perfectionist consumed by the around-the-clock challenge of maintaining the standards, staff and decor that come with a coveted three-star rating from the hallowed Michelin Guide, more prestigious than the guide that had lowered his rating. “All these people, all these exceptional beings who give you the impression of so much assurance, they are all very fragile, they all have such strong moments of doubt,” said Loiseau’s wife, Dominique, in televised comments. Loiseau is also survived by three children.

The burly, balding Loiseau had three restaurants in Paris, a line of frozen foods and a boutique. He wrote books, held court on television and projected a media-friendly image that made him the first French chef to be traded on the stock exchange.

But as often happens in his business, his rise to the pinnacle had left him with a mountain of debt. Although he was making money, he knew that his future was vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy. His reputation and his market value inevitably depended on the fickle tastes of powerful food critics.

Less dramatically, other star chefs have suffered heart attacks, thrown epic tantrums and walked away from high-income posts. The top-end market is relentless for those who achieve a top rating such as three stars: Although they join a rarefied and lucrative club, they find themselves obsessively investing work and money to make sure that the badge of honor does not slip away.

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Remote Saulieu, the village of 3,000 where Loiseau had commanded the kitchen of La Cote d’Or since 1975, seemed an ideal outpost for fending off demons of stress and competition. It is in the rural heartland of Burgundy, whose culture of fine wine and food embodies the determined attachment of the French to the traditions and rhythms of the countryside.

The restaurant began its existence as a post house in 1875. Then it became an inn that was transformed by Alexandre Dumaine, a titan among chefs, into a luxury hotel and restaurant in the 1930s. Dumaine acquired three Michelin stars, making his tables an obligatory stop for Parisians on their way to the Riviera.

But the place had lost all its stars and fallen into decline when it was taken over by Loiseau. He was born to working-class parents in the Auvergne region and dropped out of school at 16 to work as an apprentice at the fabled Les Freres Troigros restaurant. He came to Saulieu, he recalled, “with nothing but my toothbrush.”

Loiseau became the owner of La Cote d’Or in 1982 and soon restored its glory with loans, renovations and prodigious talent. He made his mark internationally as the creator of “la cuisine a l’eau,” using water and natural juices of the food to make sauces that were lighter than those based on butter or cream. He dubbed his style “refined rustic.”

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After Michelin rewarded his dogged efforts with a third star in 1991, triumphs and accolades came pouring in. He created his own company. He was awarded the Legion of Honor by then-President Francois Mitterrand, a frequent patron. He parlayed his fame into product lines featuring canned soups and aprons embroidered with his name and won an endorsement contract from Perrier-Jouet champagne. His face filled magazine covers and television screens.

“We are like top fashion models,” he said during a 1997 interview, discussing the phenomenon of chef-as-superstar. “We are known everywhere.”

Despite his success, Loiseau cheerfully described himself as a workaholic “madman.” And he acknowledged that the bottom-line reality was a lot more precarious than the highflying image. The costs of staff, upkeep and food supplies meant that the restaurant could not survive without the adjacent hotel, he said. “I have to stay open every night and be full every night, in the dining room and every [hotel] room, to make any money,” he said.

On Tuesday, Loiseau’s restaurants remained open despite his death. The management announced that the eateries would close only on the day of his funeral in Saulieu. And officials said his company would push on with its projects under the leadership of his widow. His children are Berengere, 12, Bastien, 11, and Blanche, 6.

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The sudden violent death in the countryside may have elevated Loiseau from celebrity to icon, judging from the heartfelt reactions around France. “His name alone evokes all the perfection of the culinary art and the art of living,” said Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon.

Another result may be a bout of introspection in the culinary establishment, among both creators and critics. One of Loiseau’s three-star contemporaries, Pierre Gagnaire, mourned his friend with the empathy of experience. Gagnaire’s renowned restaurant near Lyon went bankrupt and shut down six years ago, but he staged a comeback and opened one in Paris near the Champs-Elysees.

Rather than blaming anyone in particular, Gagnaire reflected on the contradictions of a world that, to the considerable surprise of foreigners accustomed to genteel caricatures, can be downright nasty and destructive.

“You are in a profession in which there is suffering, fatigue behind the facade,” he told Le Parisien.

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“What puts the pressure on us is the idea of quality that we have gotten into our head, the combination of commerce and art. You are always on the razor’s edge.”

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Times staff writer David Shaw contributed to this report.


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