From “Burgundy Stars” To “The Perfectionist!” Two Riveting Books About The Downside Of Haute Cuisine And The Death Of A Chef!

The Magic Of Food!

When you see an incredibly inventive dish, created by a world renowned Chef, it makes your mouth water. Like these dishes from the first American female Chef to be awarded three Michelin Stars:

More about the food artistry of Chef Dominique Crenn in a moment, but first, a look at what it takes to create food as art, and the pressure for these Chefs to turn out incredible food day after day after day…

For some Chefs, the pressure to get Michelin Stars, the industry’s most widely acknowledged achievement, is more than they can handle.

In fairness, the Michelin Guide is just a guide – their original goal was to offer reviews that would help travelers find a good place to eat – and while it is revered around the world, the pressure to score those “Michelin Stars” has a downside as well…

Meet Chef Bernard Loiseau…

This “Wednesday Bookmobile” has two books about a single Chef, and they tell the complete story of what it takes to achieve coveted “three Michelin Star” success, and the pressure to remain on top.

I got to know Chef Loiseau thanks to a terrific book about his quest for three Michelin Stars:

“Burgundy Stars” by William Echikson

I bought the book “Burgundy Stars” in 1995, excited to read how a Chef turned his restaurant into a 3-star Michelin destination. It is a terrific account of his passion for food, his creativity and drive, and how he achieved his dream.

Here is how Amazon describes “Burgundy Stars”:

“What does it mean to receive a three-star restaurant rating in the Michelin Guide? To Bernard Loiseau, chef-owner of La Cote d’Or in Saulieu, France, it means everything. His bid for the third star is the story behind veteran journalist Echikson’s 12-month account of this famed Burgundy restaurant.”

The book is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at how Chef Loiseau created a food empire based on receiving those 3 Michelin Stars, serving some of the best food in the world. The book ends as the Chef is celebrating his triumph…if only the story ended there…

A Chef’s Shocking Death…

Then, in 2003 was this tragic story:

“One of France’s most celebrated chefs has apparently committed suicide after his flagship restaurant was downgraded in a top restaurant guide. Bernard Loiseau was found dead at his country home, a hunting rifle by his side. His death came a week after the renowned GaultMillau restaurant guide cut its rating for his Cote d’Or restaurant in Burgundy.”

GaultMillau is another revered food guide, and apparently their demotion of Chef Loiseau’s food was more than he could take. As Acclaimed Chef Paul Bocuse said at the time:

“I think GaultMillau killed him. When you are leader of the pack and all of a sudden they cut you down, it’s hard to understand, it hit him hard,” Bocuse said.

But there would be more to this story.

Out of this tragedy came another terrific book – one that focused on the intense pressure Chefs are under, especially in France, to achieve three-star status – at all costs.

The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski – 2006.

This followup book picks up Chef Loiseau’s story after his 3-star success. The Author looked at the pressure Chef Loiseau was under, and his fear that he was going to lose one of his Michelin Stars.

As one news report stated:

“Bernard Loiseau was one of only twenty-five French chefs to hold Europe’s highest culinary award, three stars in the Michelin Red Guide, and only the second chef to be personally awarded the Legion of Honor by a head of state. Despite such triumphs, he shocked the culinary world by taking his own life in February 2003. The GaultMillau guidebook had recently dropped its ratings of Loiseau’s restaurant, and rumors swirled that he was on the verge of losing a Michelin star (a prediction that proved to be inaccurate).”

And there is the mystery: was Chef Loiseau in danger of losing his 3-star status? Was that what led him to take his own life?

Journalist Rudolph Chelminski, who befriended Loiseau three decades ago and followed his rise to the pinnacle of French restaurateurs, tells the story of a daydreaming teenager who worked his way up from complete obscurity to owning three famous restaurants in Paris and rebuilding La Côte d’Or, transforming a century-old inn and restaurant that had lost all of its Michelin stars into a luxurious destination restaurant and hotel. He started a line of culinary products with his name on them, appeared regularly on television and in the press, and had a beautiful, intelligent wife and three young children he adored—Bernard Loiseau seemed to have it all.

This book digs deep into the life of a Chef that is not only acclaimed, but also filled with competition, culture wars, and impossibly high standards.

“The Perfectionist” vividly depicts a man whose energy and enthusiasm won the hearts of staff and clientele, while self-doubt and cut-throat critics took their toll.

This is a terrific book, sad but necessary to finish the story that “Burgundy Stars” only began to tell.

The Michelin Controversy Continues!

The story gets even more mysterious. As posted on the “Eater” website at the time the story broke:

“Ten years after the suicide of renowned chef Bernard Loiseau, speculation has ramped up in the French media that the Michelin Guide may have covered up its role in the affair. Though the guide has long denied allegations that it was threatening to pull one of Loiseau’s three Michelin stars, this week French newspaper L’Express published some previously unseen documents that suggest a Michelin official did indeed meet with the chef to discuss his concerns about the “lack of soul” at Le Relais Bernard Loiseau.


The story went on to report:

L’Express obtained a note purportedly written by Derek Brown, then the British head of the red guide, describing a meeting with Loiseau not long before his death. Brown notes that it was Loiseau’s first visit in three years and that they “talked a lot about his [Loiseau’s] philosophy.” Then Brown writes, “I talked of our concerns, irregularity, lack of soul, of character recent in his cuisine and the letters that are very mixed in terms of quality. Visibly ‘shocked,’ he took me seriously. We’ll see.”

Bernard Loiseau's Widow speaks

L’Express also published a note that Loiseau’s wife, Dominique Loiseau, apparently wrote to Brown thanking him for the meeting and explaining that the chef had been closely reviewing the menu with his staff ever since. She writes, “We have well understood your warning and from now on everything is being done in the kitchen to turn things around as quickly as possible.” But just three months later, Loiseau shot himself in the head.

At the time, Michelin denied the rumors that it had threatened Loiseau, and still denies it today. Brown told L’Express in an interview at the time:

“We never had any deep problem with Bernard Loiseau, just some details like the temperature of a soup.”

Well, the real story may never be known, but it’s a tragic end to an incredible culinary career, and it just helps showcase the pressure that Chefs find themselves under.

So while it’s great fun to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant, the pressure to maintain a “three Michelin star” standard is brutal on a Chef…

I showed you some of the dishes at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, the creation of acclaimed Chef Dominique Crenn:

We are at her restaurant right as she was being awarded 3 Michelin Stars, the first female Chef in US history to receive them…her food was incredible, and you can see our entire meal by clicking on our story here:

Some bristle at the need for the media to create “Celebrity Chefs”, as they just want to focus on the food. But we’ve had celebrities in the kitchen for a long long time…

This terrific book tells the story of the world’s FIRST Celebrity ChefL Antonin Careme! Click here to see more about the man who cooked for Napoleon!

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Categories: Art, Awards, Books / Media, cookbooks, Exotic Travel, Food, food blog, Food Review, Memoirs, Pop Culture, Recipes, Restaurants, Talent/Celebrities, Travel Memoir, Wacky Food

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18 replies

  1. So sad, that something as lovely as good food can have such effect

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So much pressure over something as apparently simple as food. Such guides and their critics have much to answer for, it would seem.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Pete, the razor-thin margins for a restaurant are squeezed even more when the “stars” are not for the food but for the ambiance, which means expensive details like multiple plates and cutlery for every single dish…we do to The French Laundry here in Napa Valley and figured that in a single night, by serving 100 Guests, they go through more than 3,000 dishes of various shapes and sizes based on the number of courses and how they present the food!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How sad that the joy of food and cooking can become a pressure cooker to maintain awards. It’s a business.


    • And it’s a business with a VERY HIGH failure rate…thanks so much for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have learned how fragile the success of a restaurant can be. Our daughter’s former husband has the best Italian restaurant in Bend, OR. High end. It has survived the pandemic, yet many others in town did not. Yes, even without a pandemic, the industry has a high failure rate. Best to you, John.

        Liked by 1 person

      • So glad to hear he has survived this so far, Jennie – but the horrific impact on so many this year…that’s why we try to order from our local restaurants several times a week to show support – and honestly, it’s just as important for those who make their living by delivering it!

        Liked by 1 person

      • We do the same thing. One of the greatest chefs around here is now delivering locally. His menu is mouth watering. We are supporting him. Other restaurants are bending over backwards to customers, and we are supporting them. It’s been a terrible year for restaurants, the survivors need our support. Thank you, John.


  4. That food which can be so pleasurable can take such a toll on a chef is so sad but Michelin stars and fame will always come at a cost ..if you are at the top there is only one way you can go…a sad but true fact …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, so sad and tragic. Very difficult to fall from the pinnacle and everything to these chefs/masters/artists. Last year I saw a small doc about an American chef, I think from Chicago, his journey, and the toll it took on his family and his life

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In some ways it seems incredible to me that a chef would be under the same sort of pressure as the head of a corporate finance house. I guess money and status always comes at a high price, John.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robbie, in business they live or die by those stars, and to lose one can sink a business…the first book is so inspiring, but the second shows the toll it takes to try and stay on top of the culinary world…thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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