We are selling dreams. we are merchants of happiness," chef Bernard Loiseau once said. The ebullient Loiseau ran one of only 25 restaurants in France to be awarded three stars by the all-powerful Michelin guide. His Côte d'Or restaurant in the Burgundy region of France is a shrine to detail, to perfection on a plate. And like the other markets for dreams and happiness films, say, or fashion or narcotics it was a brutal pursuit. Loiseau had not taken a vacation in four years. He had planned one for this winter, but last week another French restaurant guide, GaultMillau, inexplicably reduced his ranking for the first time in his career. And he canceled his trip.
On Monday, after presiding over the lunch service, Loiseau went to his bedroom for his customary nap. Soon after, he shot himself in the mouth with his hunting rifle. He left no note, only three children, a wife and a grand business that depended utterly on his existence.
The police have ruled Loiseau's death, at age 52, a suicide. But in France, the killer is considered still at large. Last week, Loiseau's fellow chefs accused the guidebooks of murder. "Bravo, GaultMillau, you have won," declared Paul Bocuse, the famous dean of French chefs. Bocuse, who spoke to Loiseau the day before he killed himself, says his friend had been deeply affected by the rankings demotion and by newspaper articles speculating that he might lose one of his three Michelin stars, which turned out to be untrue. "He was very anxious. He felt out of breath," Bocuse says. "You know, it is a very difficult profession."
Castigating the guidebooks may be a too-convenient way to explain how Loiseau who was known in France as "Monsieur 100,000 volts" could have come undone. After all, this was a man who had overcome life's vagaries before: with no formal schooling or gourmet pedigree, Loiseau had bought and run four celebrated restaurants. He received France's Legion of Honor in 1995 and three years later become the first chef to take his company public.
Then again, the rankings are to France what the Nobel Peace Prize is to Norway. "More than presidents (whom [the French] laugh at) ... and more than religious leaders (now employed as vague accompanists to the rituals of getting born, marrying and dying), France trusts the Michelin to discover The Truth," wrote Rudolph Chelminski, who has documented Loiseau's ascent. In 1966, Alain Zick shot himself in the head after his Paris restaurant lost a Michelin star. When Strasbourg chef Emile Jung lost a star last year, he said: "No words can ease the pain that eats at our hearts and that has killed our spirit."
And it was no secret that Loiseau was obsessed with the star game. Since winning his second star in 1981, he had shamelessly crusaded for a third. He went nearly €5 million into debt expanding the 18th century Côte d'Or building in the tiny village of Saulieu. He transformed French cooking with his cuisine à l'eau style, which uses water to bring out flavors and eschews the French weakness for cream and butter. In 1991, Michelin granted him his third star at last. Business shot up by 60%.
And still, the sparkle thrown off by the three étoiles was not quite enough. "Bernard was pretty much a manic depressive," says Chelminski. He once told a fellow chef he would kill himself if he lost a star. "All these exceptional beings who give you the impression of so much assurance, they are all very fragile," Loiseau's widow Dominique said on television last week. "They all have such strong moments of doubt."
Like France's other great chefs, Loiseau found he had to peddle his personality in order to afford to maintain three-star luxury. He became a TV personality and started selling a line of soups, champagne and even fennel-scented perfume. "Personally, I would not want two stars, let alone three," says Leslie Caron, owner of another Burgundy restaurant and the actress in the movies Gigi and Chocolat. Caron, who knew Loiseau, believes the downturn in the economy and the looming war in Iraq must have driven him to despair.
But money did not kill Loiseau, insists Bernard Fabre, his financial director. "All of that is completely false. The restaurants were doing quite well." And the guidebooks are denying guilt as well. "It's not a bad score or one less star that killed him," said GaultMillau head Patrick Mayenobe. "This great chef must have had other worries." A Michelin spokesperson would only express sadness for Loiseau's death and confirm that his stars are safe for this year at least.
The day after Loiseau's suicide, the staff of the Côte d'Or tried to stay open. The website announced that serving food would be "in the spirit of Loiseau." But after one day, the shaken crew found they could not go on. A sign over the menu in front of the restaurant, obscuring Loiseau's famous €60 frog- legs appetizer, announced the restaurant would be closed for the week. Loiseau's spirit was, in the end, too hard to match. ?