What Price Stars?
February 26, 2003 5:38 AM   Subscribe

We know that the French take their food seriously, and restaurant ratings are a BIG deal over there. But here's a sad illustration of that: famed chef Bernard Loiseau was found dead yesterday of an apparent suicide, and speculation centers around his downgraded rating from the influential GaultMillau guide. Shades of Vatel?
posted by Vidiot (17 comments total)
A downgrade could have meant a possible loss of millions of dollars (francs, whatever) to his business, I heard on the news. I had no idea that somebody of his apparent talent could be affected by such things.
posted by ashbury at 5:52 AM on February 26, 2003

Loiseau was the subject of a fairly interesting book called Burgundy Stars, which traced his efforts to ratchet up his restaurant, La Cote d'Or, from a two-star rating (excellent) to a three-star rating (fly-around-the-world-to-eat-there spectacular, as well as accolades and a probable financial windfall). The book really gives you a feeling for how much this seemingly simple rating change means to a chef of Loiseau's caliber and drive, and the personal sacrifices (money, time, relationships, etc.) necessary to achieve "culinary perfection." (The book also comes off as an extended advertisement for the restaurant; by the end you can tell that Loiseau was "playing" the author the way he played the rest of the media so well to garner publicity and positive attention. He was a spectacular showman and extremely engaging personality.) This just gives a final, tragic afterward to the book, as this event seems like the denouement of the story arc begun in "Burgundy Stars." A tragic end, but it shows how the drive for perfection can lead to a form of madness, regardless of the art form.

(And, yeah, I know Ruhlman argues it's more of a craft and not a "true" art form, but his book also sheds some light on the stresses that the quest for the "perfect meal" can exert on a chef.)
posted by arco at 6:41 AM on February 26, 2003

Of course, it would help if I actually all the links in the original post (i.e. the link to the book) before I responded, but, hey, it's early and the coffee hasn't kicked in yet.
posted by arco at 6:42 AM on February 26, 2003

yes, Burgundy Stars is really good. That's why I linked to it. *grin* (S'ok. I understand lack of coffee.)

From reading Burgundy Stars, you get a sense of how incredibly driven and not-quite-stable Loiseau seemed to be.

And mad props to Ruhlman. I really really wanna eat at the French Laundry after reading "The Soul of a Chef." (His first book was great too...and I'd much rather read him than Bourdain...for one thing, he doesn't come across as an incredible jerk.)
posted by Vidiot at 6:56 AM on February 26, 2003

Ruhlman seems to have a thing for "the pursuit of perfection". I haven't read "Making of a Chef" yet, but I too feel the magnetic force of Keller after reading "Soul of a Chef" (so did Meg, who followed through with it); I'm hoping to eat at the French Laundry on our honeymoon in October.

As for Bourdain, he definitely comes across as an arrogant prick sometimes (at least in Kitchen Confidential), but that seems to be part and parcel of some chefs' approach to cooking, at least those who do it in the public sphere: the rock-star swagger, the cockiness, etc. (Think of Iron Chef. The whole show plays into and feeds off of the competitive ego and showmanship of many "public" chefs like Bobby Flay.) When you read books like these, you get a sense for how certain personality types are drawn to top-level cooking, those who obsess about and live for the pursuit of the "perfect meal": the quest for the right ingredients, the challenge of utilizing them in the proper way, the skill of presentation. Not to mention that they get to play with knives and fire. Loiseau was an extreme, but not atypical, example of this obsession, and it may have cost him his life.
posted by arco at 7:33 AM on February 26, 2003

This is why Americans make fun of the French.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:27 AM on February 26, 2003

Or someone could have asked for ketchup...
posted by LoopSouth at 8:41 AM on February 26, 2003

This is a fascinating story from both the food angle and from the broader cultural angle. Thanks, Vidiot. I wouldn't have come across it otherwise.

Just as an aside, I should mention that while I don't know much about food/chef culture, I knew something was not right with Bobby Flay when when he stood on a cutting board in the presence of an Iron Chef. That guy rankles me.
posted by footballrabi at 9:03 AM on February 26, 2003

Though the Michelin rating makes for a great story, this guy had a lot of other issues beyond a third star. Remember: suicide is always the result of mental imbalance.
posted by sixpack at 9:08 AM on February 26, 2003

Good point, sixpack. Pinning any kind of "cause" on suicide seems to be tilting at windmills. I can understand how a single bad event may trigger suicidal behavior, but there's something else going on under the surface too.

arco, the cult of the macho chef definitely exists (I love Iron Chef, but I think that's 'cause of the pro wrestling-style showmanship. Plus it doesn't take itself seriously.) But, you can talk about that kind of freewheeling, testosterone-y atmosphere without coming across as a jerk. Kitchen Confidential was interesting, but I can't bring myself to read (or watch) A Cook's Tour because Bourdain sounds like such an asshole. I don't want to have coffee with him, much less eat food he's prepared.
posted by Vidiot at 9:58 AM on February 26, 2003

Someone is killing all the great chefs of Europe!
posted by troutfishing at 10:01 AM on February 26, 2003

I can understand how a single bad event may trigger suicidal behavior, but there's something else going on under the surface too.

Maybe he was depressed by the term "Freedom Fries."
posted by LeLiLo at 10:09 AM on February 26, 2003

For French Laundry fans, The French Laundry Cookbook is pretty neat, full of tasty photos and recipes I'll never make.

And if you hate Tony Bourdain, you might enjoy watching A Cook's Tour. He has to eat a lot of nasty stuff.
posted by jennyb at 10:14 AM on February 26, 2003

I just hope it doesn't turn into the Freedom Laundry. (With a name like that, they'd have to relocate to Berkeley.)

I think they should have a celebrity chef edition of "Fear Factor." Just imagine: Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Wolfgang Puck bungee-jumping, swimming in shark-infested waters, and being force-fed pigs' rectums. I am *so* there.
posted by Vidiot at 10:20 AM on February 26, 2003

There's a Cook's Tour that goes to the French Laundry, for the best of both worlds.
posted by smackfu at 12:30 PM on February 26, 2003

Weird. I just ran into Bourdain. (We nodded cordially, but that was all.)
posted by Vidiot at 7:48 PM on February 26, 2003

"Lucky we didn't say anything about the dirty knife..."
posted by halonine at 11:38 PM on February 26, 2003

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