France is a place where food is high art and top chefs can enjoy the prestige and acclaim of movie stars. No one knew that better than Bernard Loiseau. He started in the back of the kitchen and, with obsessive dedication to purity of flavors and careful attention to showmanship, grew into one of the most celebrated masters of fine cuisine in the world.

So France was in mourning today over his apparent suicide. A perfectionist whom a friend described as depressed in recent days, Loiseau, 52, was found dead Monday in the bedroom of his Burgundy home, a hunting rifle at his side. Investigators expressed the belief that he took his own life. But colleagues in their white toques jumped in immediately to speculate that he was also a victim of France's complex and mysterious restaurant ratings systems, in which a coterie of guide editors can make or break a chef's name and fortune.

Loiseau's flagship restaurant, the Cote d'Or at Saulieu in the Burgundy region southeast of Paris, has since 1991 enjoyed three stars -- the highest ranking -- from the benchmark Michelin Red Guide, the fulfillment of Loiseau's lifetime quest for recognition. But in France's other main guide, the GaultMillau, his ratings points dropped this year from 19 to 17 on a scale of 20. That may have been more than he could bear, his fellow chefs suggested.

"All these people, all these exceptional beings who give you the impression of so much assurance, they are all very fragile," Loiseau's wife, Dominique, told France 2 television. "They all have such strong moments of doubt."

Loiseau was not known to have left a suicide note, so there was no certainty about the circumstances of his death. His wife said simply that he had "such a strong doubt and, unfortunately, he was all alone for several hours, and we don't know what went through his head."

Loiseau in many ways epitomized the celebrity chef, publishing books, making regular television appearances, producing a frozen-food line and hosting three famous restaurants in Paris in addition to the Cote d'Or. He was a pioneer of culinary innovation -- inventing an all-potato meal, for instance -- and became the only chef whose business, Bernard Loiseau SA, traded on the French stock exchange.

Displaying the flair for self-promotion so necessary in the competitive world of high cuisine, Loiseau, perhaps brashly, called himself the Yves Saint Laurent of the culinary world and said his ambition was to be to gastronomy what Pele was to soccer.

France's agriculture minister, Herve Gaymard, said Loiseau's death underscored how celebrated chefs live with "an extremely difficult profession, never outside the media glare, the guides and the magnifying glass." Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon added, "His name alone evokes all the perfection of the culinary art and the art of living."

Historians noted that, if Loiseau committed suicide, he followed in the footsteps of another storied master of fine French eating, the 17th-century maitre d'hotel Francois Vatel. It is said that Vatel stabbed himself because the fish course got waylaid en route to a banquet at which King Louis XIV was to sup.

But present-day chefs across the country proclaimed themselves troubled by a lament that a fellow three-star chef, Jacques Lameloise, reported Loiseau had made to him recently: "If I lose a star, I'll kill myself."

Lameloise bitterly criticized the ratings system, telling the newspaper Le Parisien: "They mark us up, they mark us down. I think that's what made him crack."

In that light, Loiseau's death ignited a fierce debate over the system, which chefs immediately began denouncing as too arbitrary, too powerful and the cause of enormous pressure.

Loiseau's friend Paul Bocuse, the renowned nouvelle cuisine restaurateur in Lyon, was the most critical, calling Loiseau "a very fragile man" who was "a little depressed" when Bocuse last saw him Sunday. Speaking of the ratings system, Bocuse said: "We should not allow ourselves to be manipulated like this: 'I give you a star. I take it away.' " He added, "The profession is going to react."

Speaking on French LCI television, Bocuse said: "I think GaultMillau killed him. When you are the leader of the pack, and all of a sudden they cut you down, it's hard to understand. It hit him hard."

Another culinary luminary, Pierre Gagnaire, said: "We are in a trade where, behind the facade, there's a lot of pain, a lot of fatigue. What puts us under pressure is the quality that starts in the head, with the combination of commerce and art.

"We are caught between the hammer and the anvil," he said

Faced with the torrent of criticism, the GaultMillau guide fired back with a statement from its director, Patrick Mayenobe: "As early as 2000, he told us that if he went from a score of 19 to 17, he would relish the challenge involved in returning to the peak." Mayenobe added, "The great chef certainly had other problems," but he did not detail what they were.

The death of three-star chef Bernard Loiseau has stirred anger about France's restaurant rating system.Bernard Loiseau, right, in the kitchen of Cote d'Or at Saulieu, his flagship restaurant, in 1998.