Monday, January 25, 2010

Recommended Reading: The Perfectionist

When Michèle and I lived in Germany, we’d treat each other to dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant on our birthdays. That’s when I first became aware of Bernard Loiseau. In those days, Loiseau had a reputation as a young, up-and-coming chef and it wasn’t long before his restaurant, La Cote d’Or, got to the top of our birthday list. We made the 4-hour drive to Saulieu, in Burgundy, where Loiseau’s then 2-star restaurant is located. The meal was everything we expected and, although he didn’t yet have the top 3-star rating from Michelin, it seemed to us that he would get there.

Sure enough, a few years later, after we had returned to Canada, Loiseau received his third star. In 1995, William Echikson’s book, Burgundy Stars: A Year in the Life of a Great French Restaurant was published. Echikson’s book, an in-depth profile of Loiseau’s restaurant and the struggle to achieve the 3-star rating from Michelin, was a great read. Of course, it meant that much more that we’d been to the restaurant and met the chef.

From time to time after that, I’d see something about Loiseau. By then, Loiseau was one of the most recognized faces in France: a media sensation (like Gordon Ramsey today, only more so). He launched an IPO with his restaurants (the one in Saulieu, plus 3 bistros in Paris) and ready-to-eat foods. Awarded the Legion d’Honneur, he seemed to be going from triumph to triumph. Then, stunningly, in February 2003, despite his success, a happy marriage with 3 kids, he committed suicide.

The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine is Rudolph Chelminski’s elegy to Bernard Loiseau, seeking to explain why a man at the peak of his career would end his life at 52. Chelminski traces Loiseau’s life from childhood, through his apprenticeship at Troisgros (another 3-star restaurant), his fast-rising early career at several bistros in Paris, and his move to Saulieu to take over the deteriorating La Cote d’Or, first as chef and then as owner.

Although the inside knowledge of the Michelin guide and the rise of La Cote d'Or to 3-star status are absorbing elements on their own, it’s the attempt to get inside the head of Bernard Loiseau that holds your attention. No surprise, Loiseau was a workaholic. He was extroverted yet extremely shy with women, impulsive, a natural leader, but it’s the revelation that he was a bi-polar perfectionist that is the key to his story. As long as he went from one success to another, fuelled by the manic episodes, he could ride out the severe depressions. But when business turned down at the turn of the century – tastes and trends changed and he was unable to change with them, disposable income in France declined, American tourists disappeared after September 11, his debt load grew, and (the worst) rumours began to swirl that he’d lose his top Michelin rating – then the depressions grew deeper and got the upper hand. The pressures on a top-ranked chef can be enormous, and on a perfectionist even more so. Chelminski does a great job of making you feel the pressures, both real and inflicted by his bi-polar disorder, that Loiseau must have felt in the last months of his life.

Interestingly, the other victim in February 2003 may have been the Michelin Guide. In the aftermath of Loiseau’s death, recriminations flew with many chefs blaming Michelin and other restaurant critics for being needlessly harsh, even vicious, in their assessments. Some chefs in France have stepped back from pursuit of star-ratings and trying to keep the Michelin Man happy. Michelin doesn’t have quite the same cachet and influence that it did before, yet no other single authority has stepped into that void.

If you’re a fan of how restaurants achieve greatness, or fascinated by French culture, you’ll love The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine. Equally, if you enjoy in-depth personality studies, or you know someone who is bi-polar, this book is for you: it’s enlightening to see inside the tragedy of Bernard Loiseau.  Available at the Ottawa Library.

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