The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, by Rudolph Chelminski. Gotham Books, 354 pages, $27.50.
In September of 2002, my wife and I spent a week touring Burgundy’s glorious Côte d’Or. Three of those days were spent in a nondescript little town called Saulieu, where the sole attraction was a Michelin three-star restaurant called, aptly, La Côte d’Or, whose proprietors were an adrenal 49-year-old chef by the name of Bernard Loiseau and his poised wife, Dominique.
We found it odd that our ebullient host, at that time one of the France’s most celebrated chefs, seized every opportunity to solicit our opinion about whether his establishment, particularly the restaurant, was worthy of three stars-sort of like a 6-year-old passing her doodles to Daddy for his approbation. This behavior continued during the week, especially at mealtime. At one dinner, we spotted Loiseau peeking out at us from the pantry. No sooner had we sampled one of his signature dishes-steamed Bressane hen stuffed with vegetables, fois gras and truffles-than he materialized at our table.
“Three stars?” he beamed.
“Oh yes, absolument!” we lied. (It was bland.)
He bade farewell to every guest with the same question. We passed it off as an eccentricity, or massive insecurity. But we couldn’t help reconsidering when, just five months later, on Feb. 24, 2003, Bernard Loiseau, after the restaurant’s lunch service, returned home, placed a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
In The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, Rudolph Chelminski, a journalist who has lived in France for three decades and shared a friendship with Loiseau for as long, engrossingly recreates the life of this talented yet tragically flawed culinary icon. Along the way, he escorts his readers through the harsh and intolerant world of France’s three-star restaurants, including the abusive apprenticeships that aspiring young cooks must endure.
As a teenager, Loiseau landed a place at “Troisgros University,” the world-famous restaurant Troisgros in Roanne-somewhat like scoring a Supreme Court clerkship. The suffering didn’t approach that of the galley slaves in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, but it was pretty dismal. As Mr. Chelminski reports:
“Part of it was simple terror. Starting at anywhere from age fourteen to seventeen, homesick and heartsick, yanked from the comforting certitudes of family life when they were barely out of childhood, the kids suddenly found themselves thrust, in a state of near total ignorance, into a competitive, unforgiving man’s world where everything had to be done right now, and had to be done perfectly.”
One of the most absorbing parts of the book is Mr. Chelminski’s inside look at the Michelin Guide and how its cat-and-mouse game plays out with restaurants. The life of a Michelin inspector, as Mr. Chelminski portrays it, is surprisingly unglamorous: “It was an odd kind of existence, the life of a Michelin monk.” Never being home, the endless driving, two princely meals a day (alone), always undercover, the long report forms, the second-guessing and pressure from home office. A three-star rating from the Michelin Guide, Mr. Chelminski tells us, is “the Oscar, the légion d’honneur, and the Pulitzer Prize all in one.”
Bernard Loiseau became obsessed-that’s almost too mild a term-with earning three stars. (He’d already had garnered two stars while working at restaurant in Paris). But the supreme challenge came when he took possession of the once renowned but by then nearly forgotten La Côte d’Or. He plunged deeply into debt, renovating the place in a manner that he hoped would impress the Michelin inspectors, recruited a crack staff for the kitchen and dining room, and nervously refined his artful and salubrious style of cooking, which eschewed butter and cream.
Mr. Chelminski humorously recounts some of the absurdities of Loiseau’s campaign: “When a nicely dressed gentleman would come for lunch alone,” according to a friend and colleague, “he told us to go out and check his car to see if the tires were Michelins. That wouldn’t be proof, but it could be an indication, anyway. Sometimes, when we weren’t sure which car he had come in, he would have us going through his coat pockets in the vestiare to see if the keys might identify the car.” (One slightly annoying aspect of The Perfectionist is the author’s frequent and gratuitous use of untranslated French words and phrases, which invariably leaves the non-French speaker in the dark.)
The stars appeared, one by one, and with his coveted third star Loiseau became a national celebrity, right up there with his culinary deities Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers and Michel Guérard. Inevitably, though, in the late 90’s French cuisine moved on, and Loiseau was reluctant to board the train. Globalization was revolutionizing cooking with influences from Asia, South America and previously ignored countries like Spain. A new generation of cocky young chefs latched onto this trend and began winning their own stars for a style of cooking that Loiseau neither understood nor embraced. Add to that an economic recession, and seats were left empty at La Côte d’Or.
Mr. Chelminski also stands witness to Loiseau’s increasingly pronounced mood swings. Unfortunately for the reader, the author fails to thoroughly investigate this vital aspect of Loiseau’s downfall. Was he really bipolar, or did he suffer from something else? A Paris doctor had prescribed Prozac, but was Loiseau taking it? (Mr. Chelminski proffers that Loiseau’s brief recovery in 2002 was likely caused by the turn of winter to spring.) Was there something in Loiseau’s past that could have triggered his suffering?
Considering the great detail that Mr. Chelminski devotes to Loiseau’s professional life and his famous cooking buddies (Mr. Bocuse, Alain Chapel, the Troisgros family, Mr. Guérard), he largely glosses over his personal life, which undoubtedly played a major role in his unraveling. There was a first marriage and a divorce, followed by a second marriage to a young writer, Dominique Brunet, whom he promptly installed at the restaurant’s front desk. We barely hear from her again, even in context of the suicide. We learn that Loiseau was a neglectful father and inattentive husband, yet these relationships are not explored. Where was his family when things were deteriorating? What does his wife have to say about the tragedy?
Immediately after the suicide, many of France’s top chefs blamed the press, specifically Gault Millau magazine, which had slightly demoted La Côte d’Or. That make no sense: Gault Millau, once a trend-setting food magazine, had all but lost its clout. And anyway, shortly before his death, Loiseau had learned that the Michelin Guide had maintained his three-star ranking.
Omissions aside, Rudolph Chelminski has written an exceptionally insightful and readable book about the mad, unforgiving and relentless world of haute cuisine.
Bryan Miller writes “The Edible Complex” for The Observer.