In early 2003, France was rocked by the fallout of a horrible event. It had nothing to do with strained relations with the United States, the war in Iraq...
“The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine”
by Rudolph Chelminski
Gotham Books, 344 pp., $27.50
In early 2003, France was rocked by the fallout of a horrible event. It had nothing to do with strained relations with the United States, the war in Iraq or Europe’s wobbly economy. It was the suicide of one of the country’s gastronomic lights, the charismatic Bernard Loiseau, whose La Côte d’Or in the bucolic Burgundy countryside had been among France’s most revered restaurants for more than a decade.
The reasons were many and complex. But as American Rudolph Chelminski meticulously reports in his gripping “The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine,” Loiseau, the perfectionist of the title, began to be haunted by a fear that the Michelin Guide might revoke one of his restaurant’s precious three stars, its highest rating.
As it happened, Michelin kept La Côte d’Or’s three stars (as it has in the two years since Loiseau’s death), making the suicide all the more tragic — and the story of the insular, back-stabbing world of French gastronomy all the more captivating.
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Loiseau grew up in Clermont-Ferrand in central France. From an early age he knew he wanted to be not only a cook, but a chef, and not only a chef, but a star. In the late ’60s, the 17-year-old Loiseau began an apprenticeship in the famed kitchen of Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, where he learned his way around sweetbreads, cuts of meat, fish and the all-important ingredient of French cuisine, sauces. He learned the classic French repertoire, with emphasis on the specialties at Les Frères Troisgros: poached turbot with caviar sauce, fois gras terrine and the dish the brothers (Pierre and Jean) would become synonymous with, escalope de saumon à l’oseille (salmon with sorrel sauce).
As he expanded his knowledge, adapting elements of nouvelle cuisine and the lighter cuisine minceur into his own signature dishes, Loiseau moved up through the culinary ranks, ultimately becoming proprietor of a ramshackle kitchen in the tiny Burgundy town of Saulieu, west of Dijon, which would become La Côte d’Or.
Chelminski painstakingly pieces together Loiseau’s vision and tireless effort through an impressive number of interviews, and offers a wealth of detail on French culinary history in the process.
His background on the Michelin Guide is invaluable. If you’ve ever wondered why so many of the guide’s top restaurants (generally no more than about 20 are awarded three stars in any given year) are in far-flung towns you’ve never heard of, there’s a reason: The guide is published by the tire manufacturer. It was created in the early part of the 20th century for traveling salesmen, and for city dwellers needing an extra reason to take their cars on a road trip. To this day, the most glamorous restaurants in the country must endure the presence of the doughy Michelin Man at the awarding of their stars.
Chelminski also knows his cuisine, and his descriptions of different chefs’ signature dishes are a sensual delight, despite the tragedy of the central story. But the central tale is a cautionary one: what can happen within the competitive world of French cuisine, as well as the sacrifices it demands to achieve recognition — and the terror that what is given may someday be taken away.
Loiseau drove himself harder than any of his critics ever did. He never took a real vacation in 20 years, barely spending time with his beloved second wife and children, and obsessed over every detail in what would become a hugely successful food empire.
It also became clear to friends and even customers that Loiseau suffered from bipolar disorder. His manic highs, enthusiasm and energy lasted for days or weeks at a time, and the despondency that would inevitably descend encased his whole world in a bleakness that nothing could penetrate. In many ways, those close to him saw his self-destruction coming, yet felt powerless to help. He refused to see a doctor, and wouldn’t consider a respite from the frantic pace of his business.
And even achieving the pinnacle of French success, three Michelin stars, only seemed to agitate him more, as he began to envision ruinous disgrace should he ever lose one. His fretful refrain: “C’est jamais gagné” — “the battle’s never won.”
Chelminski’s meticulous reporting and affection for his subject — both Loiseau and French cuisine — make “The Perfectionist” a delicious and diverting read. On occasion his attention to detail can be overwhelming — his footnotes on tangential French-food trivia are as rich and distracting as their fictional counterparts in Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” and just as time-consuming to digest. And he seems to have formed his writing style in homage of Rat Pack hipsterism: The book is peppered with side-of-the-mouth phrases like “hell-for-leather,” “rinky-dink,” “joint” and my personal favorite, “hotsy-totsy.”
While you might smile at his occasional silliness, Chelminski is a personable and welcome guide through the inner workings of the world of French cuisine, as well as the psyche of a gifted, tragic man who was undone by the relentless demands of that world — and of himself.
Anne Hurley is the pop-culture editor at The Seattle Times: firstname.lastname@example.org