The Last Word: Anthony Bourdain

The suicide of French chef Bernard Loiseau in his Burgundy home threw the gastronomic world into shock last week. Loiseau had been under tremendous pressure as owner and head chef of the three-star Cote d'Or in the town of Saulieu, and peers like Paul Bocuse blamed the critics, particularly the GaultMillau guide, which had decided to drop its rating of Loiseau's eatery. To shed light on the high-pressure life of a top chef, NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith talked to Anthony Bourdain, executive chef at New York's Brasserie Les Halles and author of "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Excerpts:

Are the critics to blame?

I disagree with Bocuse and some of those people who are immediately pointing the finger at the critics and saying "You guys killed him." Reviews are a force of nature. [But] it is a real tough thing. Here was a guy who was under a variety of pressures. His restaurant was all the way out in Burgundy, far from a rail line. [And] in France, the criterion for three stars from GaultMillau is not just food. It requires vast capital investment on equipment and procedures, which the French economy basically can't support anymore.

The pressures on a chef go way beyond food.

When you're operating at that pitch, if you mess up one plate, it's the end of the world. Your food is how you judge yourself.

Chefs are often considered megalomaniacs.

It is very much "I am the general" because we are busy, in a crisis situation and because my name is on the door. You get all the credit and all of the blame. It's a chef-driven business. The conditions in the kitchen, the hours you work and the demands of the system place horrifying demands on chefs.

So how does one cope with it?

You don't really cope. You either love it or you don't. It's a business that breeds and attracts adrenaline junkies. The pressure breeds all kinds of megalomania, insanity, brutality, self-destructive behavior.

You seem pretty sane.

I delegate. It took me some time, but [now] I sleep at night.

How do different regions compare when it comes to high standards?

Chefs at the top level are the same everywhere. [But in France] where you've got the Michelin Guide reviewing you every year, the world changes. Every plate is possibly the end of the world.

Can customers crush you, too?

We're very aware of how fickle our customers can be. Every chef's nightmare when they run a hot restaurant is that two influential customers will be having drinks at the bar and one will turn to the other and say, "You know, this place is so last week." If you're the hot chef in town, with four new stars, it must chill you to the core.

Have you felt this pain?

I've sweated out a review. In my case, it's not the end of the world. But for a guy who has three or four stars, the prospect of losing one is terrifying.

Was Loiseau's reaction an exception to the rule?

I don't know of any American chefs who've killed themselves. [But] in France there's that fabulous precedent: [Loiseau] will always be mentioned in the same sentence with Vatel [the chef who killed himself in 1671 after bungling a feast for Louis XIV]. He'll never lose the three stars now.

Will anything change in the world of culinary criticism?

Absolutely nothing. In France, everybody will wring their hands, and there will be a lot of public debate, but at the end of the day, Michelin and GaultMillau will continue. The books will be as important, if not more important, as they are now, because now there's that certain kind of morbid curiosity of "Oh, look who's lost a star. Oh my God, what will happen?"

Speaking of criticism, cooking and France, a Danish pizza chef has reportedly banned French and Germans from his establishment--all because of their governments' stand on Iraq. Have you suffered any repercussions?

I haven't seen anything like that. It's ridiculous. In spite of their pop music [and] their affection for Jerry Lewis, we still love the French. The whole backlash against them is totally ludicrous.

Go with this for a moment. The French are supposedly weasels, America's got its fair share of hawks. Which would make for a better entree?

Weasel, probably. In fact, I think I've actually had weasel. I'd recommend marinating it overnight in red wine and a slow braise, [with] red cabbage on the side. I don't know how I'd cook stringy, muscular hawk. I don't know of anyone who does.

While we're at it, what about doves?

[Doves are] probably delicious. I'd recommend it roasted rare.

Join the Discussion