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The master chef who killed himself

A story of a star 'Perfectionist'

By Todd Leopold




(CNN) -- From the time he was a teenager, Bernard Loiseau had one overarching ambition: to be the chef of a restaurant rated three stars in France's annual Michelin Guide, the leading arbiter of the country's restaurants.

For years, he drove himself towards his goal. He learned the trade, training under some of France's finest kitchen artists, doing the menial jobs required of any aspiring French cook.

He borrowed money to buy his own place -- a small hotel and eatery in the town of Saulieu, many miles from Paris -- and pushed passionately to make it worth Michelin's "special journey," an honor generally accorded fewer than 20 restaurants in the whole country.

And he succeeded. In 1991, his restaurant, the Cote d'Or, was given three Michelin stars. Loiseau's style of cooking, rooted in the basics of the foods he served -- "I do sauces, but their role is just to let the ingredients express themselves," he said -- became the latest thing.

"He started to look like a trend-setter," says Rudolph Chelminski, an acquaintance of Loiseau and author of "The Perfectionist" (Gotham), a biography of Loiseau and his restaurant milieu. "In the '90s he was riding a wave -- his 'simplified cooking' was in."

But trends are fickle, and Loiseau -- a man whose vacillations from energetic enthusiasm to sudden depression led some to believe he was bipolar -- found the pressures of maintaining Cote d'Or's excellence too much.

He was wounded by a review in GaultMillau, another restaurant review publication. And he worried -- constantly -- about losing that third Michelin star, which would drop him from the ranks of the absolute best to the merely very, very good.

On February 24, 2003, Bernard Loiseau put a shotgun to his head and killed himself. He was 52. His shocking death dominated French newspaper headlines for days.

The ways of the guide

In "The Perfectionist," Chelminski goes beyond writing about Loiseau's life and career. A cooking aficionado, he discusses menus and ingredients with lush poeticism. Food, he says in a phone interview, remains an extremely serious subject in France, and that culture can create some intense competition among its major chefs.

Bernard Loiseau celebrates his third Michelin star in 1991.

That competition is stoked -- however inadvertently -- by Michelin, which has been "the gold standard of food guides" for a century, observes Chelminski.

Michelin's anonymous inspectors are merciless in their judgments, looking at every aspect of a restaurant's quality. The guide loathes trendiness and takes itself very seriously. Even earning one Michelin star is an honor; three is unsurpassable.

Moreover, Michelin is innately trusted by the French people. When Cote d'Or received its third star, business skyrocketed; a noted restaurant that went from three to two stars the same year saw business cut in half.

"The French have enormous faith in it," says Chelminski. "French civilization ... is now cynical. There's no faith in the church, everyone assumes politicians are corrupt and spouses cheat. Michelin is the one national symbol of unimpeachable rectitude."

'Like having medals ripped from your chest'

Michelin isn't regarded slavishly by every chef. Chelminski writes of several who are perfectly happy to run one- or two-star eateries.

Even without the guide's imprimatur, Loiseau was living an enviable life. He had a devoted wife and three children, made frequent media appearances and maintained a sterling reputation for his restaurant and resort.

Yet there remains something about the Michelin stars -- the attention that they bring, the perfection they demand -- that can become addictive, Chelminski says.

"They're a direct judgment on you," he says. "[One chef told me] that losing a star was like having medals ripped from your chest -- it was the worst humiliation. Another chef described [it] as 'a bereavement.' "

Loiseau could be brutal on himself, which worsened his concerns about his restaurant's quality. Yet, says Chelminski, when up he was endlessly enthusiastic. His staff loved him, a tribute to his personality.

But his personality could grow very dark, something Loiseau knew well. At one point, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was prescribed an antidepressant; it helped even out his moods, but he stopped taking it after he felt better.

Chelminski remembers a conversation he had with the chef.

"He was showing off everything. He was so up," Chelminski recalls. "I said, 'Don't you ever slow down?' His face got grim. 'You have no idea how far I go when I go down,' he said."

"He's missed as a person," he says. "There is no shortage of fine cooks [in France]. But there aren't that many personalities like Bernard. ... He loved to make people happy with food."

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