On a cold February evening in 2003, when only 12 clients had shown up for Monday lunch at the legendary La Cote d'Or restaurant here, Bernard Loiseau, one of the most prominent chefs in France, took up his hunting rifle and ended his life.
It was a shocking event in a country where chefs are as famous as movie stars. Loiseau was one of only 25 chefs in France with a three-star ranking in the Guide Michelin. He died, newspapers and other chefs said, because influential restaurant critics had speculated in print that Loiseau might lose his third Michelin star in the restaurant bible.
Subject to severe depression, Loiseau had made winning the three stars his life's work. His quest was, in fact, the subject of a 1995 book, "Burgundy Stars: A Year in the Life of a Great French Restaurant," by Fortune magazine correspondent William Echikson. In 2002, the Gault-Millau restaurant guide had deducted some points from his top rating, and now, Loiseau feared even worse, the loss of his third star. He worried that his cuisine was going out of fashion, that the empty seats in his restaurant signified the restaurant's demise and that the reporters he had long cultivated were turning against him.
His suicide at age 52 is still reverberating in France. Chefs are questioning the role of restaurant ratings and the fierce competition they inspire in the increasingly international world of fine cooking.
Meanwhile, his widow, Dominique, has taken over Loiseau's public company. An insurance settlement has paid off her debts, according to the company's 2003 annual report. Bernard Loiseau's longtime assistant chef, Patrick Bertron, who the late chef once said cooked "Loiseau better than Loiseau," has maintained the restaurant's three stars.
"I never thought of closing," says Dominique Loiseau. "I didn't want what Bernard worked for for 27 years to be for nothing."
But in a new book, "The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine," released in the United States last month, Rudolph Chelminski, a journalist friend of Loiseau's, outlines the tragic story that may be increasingly relevant to Americans watching their own chefs ascend the ladder of celebrity.
What the book does not cover is the reaction to Loiseau's suicide among the French culinary elite. Some of the country's most revered chefs have recently condemned the system that many believe led to Loiseau's death -- the critics and the obsessive cultivation of Michelin's top ranking. Three chefs have renounced the Michelin rating system this year, giving up their stars or asking not to be rated.
Most notably, on May 20, the famed three-star chef Alain Senderens informed Michelin that he wants to give up the honor accorded his Parisian restaurant, Lucas Carton. After 28 years of accolades in the Michelin Red Guide, Senderens told the media he was fed up with a system that he calls a "senseless race" of ratings and high prices and announced he'd reopen on the Place de la Madeleine as a humble brasserie.
Senderens says the Michelin criteria have led to "excessive luxury" and "vast numbers of staff."
Another restaurant, in Ammerschwihr in Alsace, has also given up the single Michelin star it has had since 1938 to become more affordable. And French culinary titan Joel Robuchon has asked that his two Parisian restaurants and one in Monaco not be rated in the next guide.
The French media consider the crisis the biggest one Michelin has ever faced over the future of its guide. The recent publication of a book by former Michelin restaurant inspector Pascal Remy revealed that some of the restaurants were not monitored every year. Anti-guide publicity has continued to mount, even as Michelin is set to begin reviewing American restaurants in a red guide to New York scheduled to come out in November.
Nonetheless, the guides remain widely influential. Since they were founded in 1900, they have expanded to 12 editions in 97 countries and sell 400,000 copies in France alone. They also have their defenders: "If I hadn't had Michelin, no one would ever have known who I was," said Lyon master chef Paul Bocuse, a friend of Loiseau's who has kept his three Michelin stars for more than 40 years.
Saulieu is the kind of place Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald might have visited while carousing their way to the Cote d'Azur. About 150 miles south of Paris, it is a provincial city that Loiseau transformed into a culinary destination.
On a recent weekday, the circular dining room of Relais Bernard Loiseau -- as it is now called -- decorated with melancholy works by French painter Bernard Buffet, is filled with diners in casual wear.
The cooking that Loiseau made famous is served exactly as he prepared it, but the menu has been divided in half, with new dishes of his successor, Bertron, across the top. Loiseau's style has been called cuisine des essences -- the perfect cooking of pure ingredients to reveal their essence. Bertron's style is often called cuisine tendance and involves more complicated dishes with bursts of different flavors. It is currently more fashionable.
For the past year, Dominique Loiseau has been the president of Bernard Loiseau SA. The company includes Saulieu, with its hotel, spa and restaurant; three Parisian restaurants (Tante Louise, Tante Marguerite and Tante Jeanne); a frozen-food line, and a consulting group.
Loiseau's celebrity legacy lingers -- he was a regular on television, a cult personality noted for his charisma. His national stature was such that he was decorated with the French Legion of Honor, pinned onto his lapel by the president of the republic, Francois Mitterrand -- a client -- in the gilt salon of the Elysee Palace in Paris. He was always a "winner," Dominique Loiseau says.
But the pressures of haute cuisine and the accumulation of 27 years of hard work -- serving two meals a day with rarely a vacation -- drove him to the breaking point, his friends say. Loiseau had bipolar disorder, Chelminski writes, and swung from terrifying energy to pits of depression.
"For Bernard, everything was either fantastic or lousy," Dominique Loiseau said. "He was so tired that he'd had enough." Bernard's downfall, she believes, was that he was "a man without a hobby."
Loiseau had become increasingly despondent in the weeks before his suicide, Chelminski wrote. He had dropped hints that he was considering suicide, but he did not seek help. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States had sharply reduced the flow of American tourists, who had been an important source of revenue for his restaurant. He told chef Bocuse that he was desperate. He didn't know what he was going to do about rumors that his restaurant was going to go down in rank.
"When you are someone in the media, people don't realize that sometimes [your subjects] have a facade made of glass," said Stephanie Gaitey, a spokeswoman for Loiseau. Since Loiseau's death, chef Bertron says, fewer clients are coming to the restaurant. Some of the other businesses in the Loiseau group make up the difference, but most of the company's efforts are put into maintaining quality at Saulieu.
"When you have a tragedy like that in a business, it takes many years to grow back your reputation," Dominique Loiseau said. "There are people who have put up their places for sale, but we are very proud that we've still been able to grow and adapt to the new changes in the business environment." The business has expanded to include a line of chocolates and is considering expanding in the United States.
Gently smoothing her cropped brown hair, Loiseau declines to compare her business with other famous French restaurants. "We have a beautiful hotel, spa and a home," she says. She bends down slightly. "The secret is to be close to the client, have the right spirit and always strive for excellence. "
In that way, she said of her husband, "when I decide to do something, I'm like him."
Erika Lorentzsen is a writer living in France.