Did a Famous Chef Once Kill Himself in Part Because of Losing a Michelin Star?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to cuisine (chefs, dishes, etc.) and whether they are true or false.

CUISINE URBAN LEGEND: The impetus for the suicide of a famous French City chef was rumors that his restaurant was going to lose a star in its Michelin Guide rating.

Bernard Loiseau was one of the most famous chefs in a country, France, that has a great many famous chefs.

Even as a young chef in the early 1970s, Loiseau was a proponent of “nouvelle cuisine,” a style of cooking that stressed light, delicate dishes with a heavy emphasis on presentation.

After working for a number of restaurants, Loiseau worked for (and eventually purchased for himself in 1982) the restaurant, La Côte d’Or

Loiseau’s dedication and hard work paid off in 1991 when La Côte d’Or was awarded a prestigious three star rating from the famous Michelin Guide for restaurants. To show how prestigious such a rating is, in the over 5,000 restaurants rated by the Guide in Ireland and Britain, only THREE were given three star ratings.

The percentage is a great deal higher in France, but even there, of the multitude of great French restaurants, there are only about two dozen three star restaurants in France, and Loiseau had one of them.

Loiseau had another interesting approach to the world of fine cuisine – he felt that it should not be something only for the rich, but rather something to be shared with all the world. To this effect, he marketed a line of frozen dinners under his brand. He also took his brand to the public itself, becoming the first chef to incorporate – Bernard Loiseau SA was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. He also made a point of stressing that being a great chef was a skill that could lie within ANYone, rich or poor.

In many ways, it appears as though Loiseau was an inspiration for the character of Auguste Gusteau, the celebrity chef who inspires Remy, the rat who becomes a famous chef in the film Ratatouille.

Sadly, though, the Gusteau and Loiseau share more than a similar sounding name and an approach that fine dining could be for everyone.

You see, in Ratatouille, Chef Gusteau dies shortly after his famous restaurant loses two stars.

In real life, Loiseau was suffering under similar pressures from the changing world of French cuisine.

One of the problems with reaching the top is that there is really no place to go but either stay put or fall down, and once Loiseau reached three-star status, he worked tirelessly to KEEP that status.

The famous Gault Millau guide (a challenger to the Michelin Guide, as far as restaurant’s go, as the Gault Millaue guide professed to judge restaurants strictly by the food, while the Michelin Guide tended to factor in ambience heavily, as well) reduced their rating of 19 (out of a possible 20) for La Côte d’Or to a 17 in early 2003.

Around the same time, there were rumors that the Michelin Guide was going to take away one of Loiseau’s stars. However, in early February, the Michelin Guide specifically issued a statement saying that they did NOT plan to take away a star.

Still, the thoughts were clearly in the mind of Loiseau.

The folks at Gault Millau claim that Loiseau took the point reduction in stride, and viewed it as a challenge he could live up to, but those closest to him suggest a different reaction from Loiseau.

A fellow three-star chef, Jacques Lameloise, reported that Loiseau told him ‘If I lose a star, I’ll kill myself.”

Later in that month, Loiseau came home late one night and told his wife, Dominique, “No, Dominique, I’m sure..”

“You’re sure about what?” she asked. ”

Now, I know the press want to kill me.”

That same week, the longtime maitre ‘d at Le Cote d’Or, Hubert Couillord (who had worked and been friends with Loiseau for 20 years) recalled:

[He] was so tired and so fed up (with) everything, and he say he was just walking around in the kitchen, and here, and he say, ‘I’m not good enough. I’ve — I did what I could, but I’m not good enough. I’m not real good. I said, ‘No, don’t say this. You’re the most known chef in France, and I mean one of the most known in the world’ … and day after day, maybe the last week, was crazy time. Crazy.

Finally, two days after his comment to his wife, Loiseau put a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Now obviously, for a man to do something like that, he had to have some major problems, some “demons” in his mind, if you would. It’d be extremely irresponsible to suggest that losing a star or having his rating lowered “caused” his suicide. However, I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that something like that could be the “impetus” for a person to commit suicide. It’s certainly not BLAMING either guides for anything. It’s just an unfortunate (and tragic) turn of events.

Interestingly enough, in the decade since Loiseau’s death, Le Cote d’Or has maintained the three-star rating, thanks to the hard work of Loiseau’s widow, Dominique and his replacement as executive chef, Patrick Bertron.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Lloyd de Vries and Rebecca Leung for their reporting efforts.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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