A Review To Die For?

All Bernard Loiseau ever asked of himself as a chef was perfection, and for the past decade, that sufficed. The American journalist William Echikson once chronicled a year in Loiseau's monomaniacal quest for three Michelin stars for his restaurant in Burgundy: a 364-day (closed on Christmas) routine of inspecting plates for misplaced droplets of sauce, flower arrangements for droopy petals, napkins for loose threads. And he kept it up relentlessly, subsidizing his flagship Hotel de la Cote d'Or with three popular restaurants in Paris and a line of frozen foods, becoming along the way the first great French chef whose company was listed on the Paris Stock Exchange.

And then suddenly perfection wasn't good enough. At a meeting last summer Michelin's implacable editors reportedly informed Loiseau--who helped pioneer the artery-sparing "nouvelle cuisine" in the 1970s--that however masterful his execution, diners were getting tired of seeing the same dishes on his menu. Although the 2003 edition kept Cote d'Or's top rating, a competing guide, GaultMillau, dropped the restaurant from 19 points (out of 20) to 17, faulting it as insufficiently "dazzling." "Two points in one shot," exclaimed former chef Andre Daguin, now a union president, "that's not a judgment, that's an attack!" If so, Loiseau took it to heart: after finishing lunch service last Monday, before the first diners arrived for dinner, he shot himself to death at the age of 52.

Loiseau's suicide led to some rueful reflections--inspired by the famous chef Paul Bocuse, who claimed his friend was in despair over the downgrading--on whether France has conferred too much influence on its restaurant critics. The consensus seemed to be that it has not. The stars giveth, but they also taketh away, observed Echikson; without the imprimatur of the guidebooks, nobody would have driven 2i hours from Paris to spend roughly $200 on a meal at Loiseau's restaurant. Marc Veyrat (whose own restaurant, L'Auberge de l'Eridan, was awarded an unprecedented 20 points in the 2003 GaultMillau) preferred to view Loiseau not as a businessman facing problems but a tortured genius on a lonely quest for greatness: "We are too in love with our work," he pronounced, "and the passion brings us flashes of madness, like all artists." The truth is, Loiseau, for all his success, was never really fulfilled. One of the last things he said to Echikson was that he thought he actually deserved four stars.

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris