The Pinnacle Comes At A Price

The Pinnacle Comes At A Price

BEFORE THE FALL: Bernard Loiseau leveraged his three Michelin stars to build a fine hotel next to his restaurant.

Restaurant operators will have to wait until this November to learn which New York City establishments will be anointed with three stars in the inaugural U.S. edition of Europe's standard-setting Michelin Red Guide. But those so honored better be ready to handle the pressure that accompanies their lofty status. Getting to the three-Michelin-star level is one thing. Staying there can be harder. And falling from it—or even the perception that one of those precious stars is about to be lost— can be devastating.

It certainly was for French chef Bernard Loiseau, who in 2003 committed suicide in the prime of his life because he thought his world-renowned La Cote d'Or was in peril of being demoted from three stars to two by Michelin. The 52-year-old Loiseau left behind his luxurious 32-room hotel/restaurant in Saulieu in the Burgundy region of France; three bistros in Paris; several lucrative deals for lines of culinary products; and, vastly more important, a wife and three young children, each of whom he adored.

A culinary superstar in Europe like no other thanks to nonstop media exposure, Loiseau had bundled his enterprises together and incorporated them to form Bernard Loiseau, S.A., a publicly traded company. The organization, whose only tangible asset was Loiseau himself, sold 600,000 shares on the Paris Bourse at 7.42 Euros apiece in its initial public offering. The chef's name recognition among the French populace was as high as that of the country's president. If you've ever thought that the key to the restaurant game is making yourself into a brand, this is the guy you want to emulate

Loiseau's story is told in penetrating detail in Rudolph Chelminski's The Perfectionist (Gotham Books, $27.50). It would be a valuable book if that were all it covered. But in chronicling Loiseau's ascendancy and eventual demise, Chelminski also sheds light on critical issues most RH readers, particularly chef-owners, face every day. This book is rich in thought-provoking material for full-service operators, even if you don't care much about what happened to Bernard Loiseau.

One key fact about Loiseau was that he wasn't that great of a cook. He started his career fast, scoring a top apprenticeship with the Troisgros brothers at their fabled restaurant in Roanne. But things didn't go well there. "He was the worst apprentice I saw in 30 years of cuisine, possibly the worst the Troisgros ever had," says chef Bernard Chirent. "He was the cook who wasn't a cook."

No matter. Loiseau was a perfectionist who kept a close watch on every aspect of his restaurant and figured out how to make each one measure up to threestar status. He dreamed up his cuisine de essences as a point of differentiation, and it turned out to be in tune with the culinary times. His credo: The best ingredients prepared in relatively simple ways, all of it done at the last minute. If you walked into his kitchen five minutes before service, the place was immaculate; nothing was prepared beforehand.

In the book, Loiseau describes his food this way: "Nothing is disguised with sauces the way they used to do in the old days. I do sauces, but their role is just to let the ingredients express themselves and really taste of what they are. I'll never have more than three, maybe sometimes four, flavors on the plate."

When this is your approach, you need to have ultrapristine ingredients. Loiseau says 60 percent of his job was finding the best providers. He didn't want great ingredients; he wanted perfect ones. "Clients come here from all over the world, and they're expecting a miracle," he said. For the most part they got one.

At La Cote d'Or, he had pulled off the impossible. The place had once had three stars, but had been cut back to zero by the time Loiseau took over. Loiseau got it back up to three. When he finally landed that third star, business immediately went up 60 percent. No one had ever pulled off this trick in the history of the Michelin guide. It made Loiseau a living legend. He received his third star in 1991, and food writers refer to the next 10 years as the "Loiseau decade."

But the culinary world does not stand still for any chef, three stars or not. All over the world, chefs "were taking the techniques the French had pioneered, adding their personal touches and their national ingredients, and coming up with an excellence in gastronomy that was unquestionably equal to the best the French were doing themselves," Chelminski writes. "France was no longer alone at the top of the fine food chain." And even within France, household-name chefs like Loiseau, who basically turned out traditional French country cuisine that had been upgraded in one way or another, had begun to be seen as old school. Progressive French chefs were leaving them behind.

The big blow to Loiseau came not from the Michelin Red Guide (which in fact kept La Cote d'Or at three stars despite Loiseau's suicide) but from competitor GaultMillau guide. Its 2003 edition set food world tongues wagging by docking him two points (to a 17, down from 19), explaining the move with this chilly critique:

"If we may be so bold today as to write what more or less everybody knows, that this cuisine constructed on a patiently consolidated base is hardly dazzling but simply very well made and agreeable, it is also to point out that if you have the money to invite your family or some friends who are not accustomed to great tables, La Cote d'Or still constitutes one of the best initiations to very high level restaurant eating."

Not what you want to hear if you're a perfectionist. Loiseau shot himself in the head shortly thereafter. "A question of honor," said his wife.

All 25 three-Michelin-star chefs in France attended Loiseau's funeral. Talk among them that day was dominated by the pressures that come with running a Michelin-starred restaurant kitchen in France. A lot of them had similar feelings as Loiseau, which Chelminski sums up this way:

"For all the general public knew, this was cuisine's Sun King himself, the man with the ideal life, the ideal wife, the ideal kids and the ideal country palace, which was so beautiful that it knocked all his provincial competitors back into second place. But what that same general public could not suspect was that their Sun King was in fact a big, scared kid with an incomplete professional formation, a terrifying load of debt, a mostly empty dining room and a psyche that he had run to exhaustion by trying to keep pace with the personal mythology he had created. Luxury, calm and pleasure were for the clients, not the provider."

The Michelin Guide New York City will rate 500 New York City restaurants and award three stars to a handful of places to "reward exceptional cuisine, worthy a special journey, where diners eat extremely well, sometimes superbly. The wine list features generally outstanding vintages, and the surroundings and service are part of this unique experience, which is priced accordingly," the Michelin people say. One-star and two-star rankings will be handed out as well.

For those places awarded stars, congratulation in advance. As the Loiseau saga shows, you're going to have to work extrahard to keep them.

The Perfectionist

By Rudolph Chelminski Gotham Books, $27.50. The inaugural edition of Michelin Guide New York City will be available in November, 2005.