It takes a very big story to displace the impending war with Iraq as the lead item on any country’s news programmes right now, but the editors of all of France’s national TV networks had no hesitation in beginning recent bulletins with an emotional and lengthy tribute following the death one of the nation’s finest and most popular chefs, Bernard Loiseau. Part of this was because Loiseau was an international symbol for French cuisine, and global ambassador for French products. But sadly, part was also because of the tragic circumstances of his death. Only fifty-two years old, with a wife and three young children, the renowned Three Star Michelin chef of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or restaurant, Bernard Loiseau committed suicide, shooting himself at home with his hunting rifle. The world of gastronomy in France is in mourning, and there have probably never been such a gathering of famous chefs, politicians, and celebrities at his funeral in the small countryside town of Saulieu, which Loiseau single-handedly transformed into a mecca for gourmet pilgrims drawn from across the world to sample his creative cuisine.
A few days before Loiseau decided to take his life, the French food guide, GaultMillau had announced that his restaurant had been downgraded from 19/20 to 17/20. More significantly, rumours had been circulating that Michelin itself had warned the chef that he was in danger of losing his coveted third star, though ironically, the 2003 edition of the Guide Rouge, published on the day of Loiseau’s funeral, retained his ranking at the top of the gourmet tree. First reactions of his fellow chefs were emotional and angry, with the legendary eighty year old Paul Bocuse claiming that GaultMillau were responsible for his friend’s death, and another Three Star chef, Jacques Lameloise, recounting a recent conversation, with Loiseau telling him that he would not hesitate to commit suicide if he lost a Michelin star. Every other chef interviewed admitted that their greatest fear was a downgrading by Michelin, with Jean-Michel Lorain, who recently was inexplicably moved down from three to two stars, explaining that this had immediately led to a 20-30 percent drop in his business.
It is clear, then, that in these gourmand-obsessed times, the immense pressure put on the shoulders of the world’s great chefs, both creatively and financially, is becoming close to intolerable. Michelin seriously needs to reexamine its criteria for awarding its seal of recognition, returning back to basics and concerning itself more with the quality of the chef’s cooking rather than the huge amounts of money he has to borrow from banks to create a luxury restaurant.
Bernard Loiseau was born in the mountainous Auvergne region in the centre of France, and began his chef’s apprenticeship as a teenager. From 1968 to 1971he worked in the demanding kitchens of the Troisgros brothers in Roanne, then, after military service, at two respected Parisian restaurants, La Barriere de Clichy and La Barriere Poquelin. At the age of only 24, he took over the Côte d’Or in Saulieu, once the mythical restaurant of one of the founding fathers of French gastronomy, Alexandre Dumaine, but then, nothing more than a crumbling, run-down old coaching inn. Loiseau transformed the Côte d’Or with energy, enthusiasm and ambition, rising to one Michelin star in 1977, two in 1981, and the ultimate accolade of the third in 1991.
He succeeded because of his unique cooking ideas, understanding that people were ready to turn their back on both the heavy cream and butter sauces of traditional cuisine and the faddish style of Nouvelle Cuisine, and instead offered them a ‘cuisine au jus’, based on the natural cooking juices of the finest products—savoury fish and meat stocks, thickening sauces by reduction rather than cream and flour, deglazing with vinegar, lemon and even water. But this success was also due to his willingness to raise money through financial institutions to create the luxury that he knew Michelin demanded as much as the dishes the chef created. In 1998, Bernard became the first ever chef to turn himself into a publicly-quoted company on the Paris stock exchange, and I remember well that his faithful Maitre d’Hotel, Hubert, telling me that from then on the chef’s mood for the day invariably depended on whether the stock market was up or down.
Bernard Loiseau was a self-made man, with apparently all the trappings of success one could hope for. A happy marriage with Dominique Brunet, who was also his close collaborator, three wonderful young children, a food empire that included not just the Côte d’Or, but three restaurants in Paris and his own line of gourmet vacuum-packed foods and sauces. He was probably the most well-known chef in France after Bocuse, both of whom have been honoured by the prestigious Legion d’Honneur. One can only hope that the were other reasons behind his sad decision to end his life than the fanciful ratings of a food guide.
When Bernard received his Third Michelin Star in 1991, I was sent down to Saulieu by an English newspaper to interview him. Of all the chefs I have met, no one had the personality, charm and sheer enthusiasm for food of Loiseau. His first child had recently been born, and I still remember him telling me that she, Berangere, and all his future children would have first names beginning with a B, so they wouldn’t have to change the initials of the restaurant’s plates and cutlery when they inherited his restaurant. Over the years, I went back many times to the Côte d’Or, always dazzled by his cuisine, the service of his loyal waiters and kitchen brigade, and the unique welcome that Dominique and Bernard gave to guests and friends alike. More recently, I talked to him about his future.
The interview was never published, but it seems fitting to reprint it today.
What is the future for the 3 Star Michelin chefs?
“I believe the bankruptcies have only just begun, because too many chefs have over expanded and the banks have been too keen giving them money. The easy times are over. We’re now seeing a very different ball game which, in a sense, is going to bring us all back to what the state of French cuisine was like 30 years ago. Instead of more chefs joining the ranks of the three stars, I see the reverse, with our numbers dropping in France to 12 or 13 because people will see it is almost impossible to earn a living in our business. I think the idea of the meal as a ‘grande messe’, the restaurant as a ‘temple de gastronomie’ has failed, and people now want conviviality, simplicity and a return to their ‘racines’, their roots.”
Many chefs spend each evening socialising with clients, wandering round the tables, yet Loiseau always stays in his kitchen.
“I never, ever go into ‘la salle’ – it is one of my golden rules. If you start greeting clients and the like they’ll soon be saying, ‘If Loiseau isn’t there I’m not going to come’, which I call the slavery of fame. If I have to make an ‘apparition’ it will be in the reception, but my place is in the kitchen with my team, because you have to understand that I’m like the trainer of a football team. I’m not there to cook, but to encourage or criticise, I taste, I demand, and it is their task to create my cuisine’.
How important was the Michelin Guide in his success?
“It is important to understand that it is not Michelin who fills my restaurant – it is me. They filled my restaurant for one year and one year only, when I was awarded the third star. I admit that I needed their seal of approval because I was seen as a marginal with ideas like ‘la cuisine à l’eau’ and omitting sugar from desserts. You can say I was like a Hermes tie without the Hermes label. But the real achievement is to stay at the top, where each meal, each dish, each plate is perfect, where the experience is always just as incredible and unique as the last time someone dined in my restaurant. You are only as great as the last meal you serve, and you must better that achievement every single day. Many chefs rest on their laurels when they are crowned by Michelin, but I have the same ‘rage’, the same ‘fighting spirit’ as when I first started in the kitchen. I am convinced people will say that the 20th century began with the cuisine of the great Escoffier and ended with Joel Robuchon, but that the 21st century will begin with Loiseau.”
It is now certain that Bernard Loiseau will be remembered as one of the legendary figures of French gastronomy, but sadly, it will be not only because of the influence of his innovative cuisine, generosity and irrepressible personality, but also due to the tragic way he decided to end his life, posing a huge question mark for all young chefs with ambitions to achieve the ultimate consecration of the elusive third Michelin star.
John Brunton is a free-lance journalist and photographer who contributes to magazines in the UK and Italy.