I’ve now finished The Perfectionist, Rudolph Chelminski’s account of the life and untimely death of three-starred French chef, Bernard Loiseau. What a sad story.
In my first posting, I described how the first half of the book introduces Loiseau within the context of the great French chefs of the past fifty years. In the second half, the author cements the image of a chef whose gastronomic confidence and lack of personal self-confidence seem to flourish in tandem. We learn of his invention of a system of binding sauces with vegetable purées; and one of his defining creations, frogs’ legs with garlic purée and parsley juice, is described in enlightening detail. But at the same time we witness him working ever harder to hone his offering, becoming overly embroiled in building works at his restaurant and incurring mounting debts (“Bernard had mortgaged his future to Michelin”).
Much is made of the friendly service Loiseau drew from his team. Bernard exhorted his front of house staff to “just be yourselves”, and the resulting delivery and presentation of dishes was refreshingly straightforward:
“There would be no convoluted terms on the menu, no “secret” ingredients, no precious, poetical language that made clients wish they had a dictionary at the table. Each dish would be presented simply and clearly as what it was, and when we delivered it to the client we would simply announce it without going into further detail. If you spend a minute going into lyrical descriptions of the dish and its recipe, it’s just getting cold while you talk, and the client has already forgotten what you’ve said by the time you’re finished. Eating here is for pleasure, not for education.”
Loiseau was similarly single-minded when it came to the sourcing of ingredients:
“I do sauces, but their role is just to let the ingredients express themselves and really taste of what they are … sixty per cent of my work is finding the best providers of my ingredients”.
Loiseau’s attitude to service and produce reminded me of similar comments Marco Pierre White made to the Caterer in an exclusive interview earlier this year.
Great food, ambience and service conspired, in 1991, to win Loiseau his coveted third star – a source of huge pride to a chef who, in his own words, arrived at his restaurant “with nothing but my cock and my knives”. But now his problems really started. An economic downturn, Bernard’s ongoing insecurities and high stress levels led to a bout of depression while in Japan. He was diagnosed as a manic depressive and prescribed Prozac.
By now, more experimental chefs were attempting fusions of world cuisines and the likes of Ferran Adria were emerging to threaten the cosy world of classical cuisine. Loiseau rejected their faddish work, but his increasing paranoia and lack of confidence made him increasingly withdrawn, stressed, even phobic about hygiene. The fallout from September 11 exacerbated his worries by robbing him of the healthy US customer base he previously enjoyed. And then rumours emerged that Michelin were considering downgrading him from three to two stars.
Despite all the problems beyond his control that beset him, Chelminski suggests that Loiseau was arguably the architect of his own downfall. True, there was a meeting in 2002 between Loiseau and the then head of Michelin, Derek Brown, at which Brown passed on readers’ criticisms of Loiseau’s sauces. But Chelminski asserts that the subsequent predictions that circulated in the French press that Loiseau might be about to lose a star gathered pace only after Bernard himself called lots of his contacts to tell them of Brown’s comments.
As it turned out, Bernard maintained his three stars in early 2003; but his GaultMillau rating dropped by two points to 17 out of 20 – a crushing blow. By now he was a man haunted by the ambitions he had set himself, and in February 2003 he killed himself with a gunshot to the head, burnt out and unable to bear his worries any longer.
As I said in my first posting, this book is far too long, and the language at times far too florid. But there is enough focus on classic French dishes to please chefs; and its depiction of a man broken by his dreams of Michelin success is pretty moving.
The book’s message in a nutshell? Be careful what you wish for.