When the French government released its comprehensive list of the world’s best restaurants in December, New York’s famed Per Se came in second. Tokyo’s insanely exclusive Kyo Aji took home third.
The top spot instead went to the much lesser-known Le Restaurant de l’Hotel de Ville.
The surprise victory suddenly thrust the Swiss restaurant’s young and debonair chef, Benoit Violier, into the international spotlight, hailed in the media as “the world’s best chef.”
At just 44 years old, Violier had a boyish face, a young family and a new, state-of-the-art kitchen. And he had already spent a quarter-century in some of the best restaurants on the planet. He had learned from the best, yet he was a perfectionist who stressed that nothing in the intense business of haute cuisine could be taken for granted.
“The strictness about myself always has to increase more and more,” he once told a restaurant guide. “Nothing can be definitively acquired; everything must be done all over again every day.”
On Sunday, Violier was found dead in his home in Crissier, Switzerland, the victim of what police think was a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the BBC and other news organizations.
Violier’s apparent suicide has shocked the restaurant world and sown confusion about why he would kill himself a month after being crowned the best chef in the world.
Some of his closest friends offered an answer, though, speculating that the intense stress of running one of the planet’s greatest restaurants suddenly overwhelmed the young chef just as he struggled to cope with the double loss of his father and his closest culinary mentor.
“I am appalled, absolutely destroyed,” Pierre Keller, a wine merchant who shared a drink with Violier 10 days ago, told Swiss newspaper 24 Heures. “It takes a lot of pressure to do that.”
“I hope that the stress of this number-one ranking is not the cause,” added Pierre Gagnaire, head chef of the Paris restaurant that bears his name.
Running even the smallest restaurant is often an extremely stressful business, and the industry is rife with broken dreams and bankruptcies.
The rarefied world of haute cuisine can be especially cruel. Here, the margin between success and failure can be as fine as a single, powerful critic’s review. And coveted ratings, such as Michelin stars, can literally mean life or death for a chef.
In 2003, for example, renowned French chef Bernard Loiseau allegedly committed suicide after the Gault & Millau guide lowered his restaurant’s rating, according to the Guardian. Last year, American celebrity chef Homaro Cantu was found hanging in his yet-to-open Chicago gastro pub.
Violier’s Hotel de Ville was one of only two restaurants in Switzerland to attain Michelin’s elusive three-star rating. Worldwide, only about 100 restaurants manage the feat a year, as even the most elite find it hard to maintain culinary perfection.
“For three stars you have to be scared, you have to feel the adrenaline rush,” said award-winning French chef Yannick Alléno in “Three Stars,” a documentary about the intense pressure in the industry. “That’s how it must be when you’re cooking.”
“Michelin-starred chef. That very phrase seems to conjure up something. It elevates your average stove monkey to superior chefy status. It puts you in a completely new culinary class,” said British food critic and writer William Sitwell in the documentary “Michelin Stars: The Madness of Perfection.”
“Most decent chefs are aiming for culinary excellence. They want to produce good, tasty plates of food,” Sitwell said. “But what happens when you add the words ‘Michelin-starred’ into that recipe? I wonder if, at that point, the path toward perfection becomes dangerously obsessive.”
Violier seemed to acknowledge, even thrive under, the pressure-cooker atmosphere of being a top chef.
“It’s my life,” he said in a 2014 interview with Swiss television station RTS. “I go to sleep with cooking. I wake up to cooking.”
Violier was born in the small town of Saintes, Charente-Maritime, in southwestern France. He grew up hunting with his father, and as a chef often made French game the centerpiece of his meals.
“He was 4 years old the first time he accompanied his father and four brothers to hunt in a nearby forest, and he has been an avid hunter ever since,” according to a 2012 profile in Food Arts. “Early on, he devised his own code of honor, respecting the environment, the people whose lives revolve around the hunt, and whole animal, long before the nose-to-tail ethos caught on.”
Violier moved to Paris to pursue his passion for cooking in 1991, according to his 2015 Michelin write-up. He worked for one top chef after another, including “Chef of the Century” Joël Robuchon, who would later list Hotel de Ville as one of his favorites.
In 1996, Violier moved to the tiny town of Crissier, Switzerland, just outside Lausanne, to become chef Philippe Rochat’s right-hand man.
Sixteen years later, Violier succeeded Rochat, taking charge of the three-star restaurant in emphatic style.
Violier “patiently toiled under Rochat’s tutelage for 15 years, and his succession was planned with a precision even a Swiss watchmaker could admire,” according to the Food Arts profile.
“We started the transition and planning process in the summer of 2006, when I sketched my dream kitchen while on vacation in Corsica, and I spent the next six years refining the concept, never wavering from the initial plan,” Violier told the magazine.
“I want the most beautiful kitchen in Europe,” he supposedly told Europe’s top kitchen designer — and he got it: a gleaming, basketball-court-size space for a cool $1.3 million.
When Violier took the reins of the prestigious restaurant on April 1, 2012, he climbed a scaffold and hung a sign bearing his name from the roof of the elegant three-story town hall that houses the restaurant, Food Arts reported.
“It’s a magical place for me, a must-try place,” he said in an interview that October. “It’s still a gastronomic hotpot, the temple, the pyramid capstone. I like keeping this philosophy and this spirit alive.”
But Violier went beyond his predecessors. He obsessed over providing visitors with the freshest of local foods, cooked simply but to studied perfection. His menu changed daily, sometimes hourly, depending on what was available, yet his standards were sky high. They had to be, lest Hotel de Ville lose a star under his watch.
He inherited “product-centered cuisine” from his predecessors, he told Fine Dining Lovers, but “mine is a bit more refined.”
“It reflects our generation,” he said of his simplified yet almost scientific technique. “We used to follow the principle of three flavors per dish, and I noticed that one main flavor plus one to enhance it worked fine. Then we tried to perfect our condiments and the cooking itself. Our cooking techniques are becoming highly sophisticated. We try to be as accurate as possible. It’s crucial in a refined gastronomy you get to the point you can’t refine it any further.”
“If fishmongers see a particular kind of turbot and think ‘this one’s for Crissier,’ then I can call clients I know who love turbot, and cook it for them that very evening,” he told Food Arts.
He obsessed about everything at his restaurant, even the table bread.
“You can tell it’s cooked if it makes this noise. Listen. A hollow sound like that,” he told Fine Dining Lovers, tapping a loaf. “I like things to be precise. I’d describe our cuisine as measured, meticulous.”
His policy was simple: “I believe the key to success, the core, the essence of a chef, is work. There is no secret. If you don’t work, you’ll get nowhere.”
His hyper-intense, hyper-local approach quickly paid off. He earned the approval of powerful French critic Gilles Pudlowski. Then Gault et Millau, second in importance only to Michelin, named Violier Switzerland’s “Chef of the Year” in 2013.
Then came the moment that would vault the wunderkind into the spotlight, with all its glory and its glare.
In December, La Liste, an algorithmic ranking system put out by the French Foreign Ministry and tourism board, named Hotel de Ville the best restaurant in the world, narrowly beating out Per Se.
What should have been the best moment in Violier’s life was darkened, though, by the back-to-back deaths just months before of his father — to whom he dedicated a 1,000-page book of European wildfowl — and Rochat, his culinary mentor, who died in a cycling accident.
Violier was “badly shaken” by their deaths, 24 Heures reported. “What resorts did he take to join them?”
On Sunday, Violier was found dead at his Crissier home in what police said was an apparent suicide.
The weapon was one of Violier’s hunting shotguns, the Guardian reported.
His death shocked many of his friends, who saw no signs of the flawless chef cracking under pressure, either personally or professionally.
Benoit Violier and his wife, Brigitte.
“I do not know what to say,” Frédy Girardet, Hotel de Ville’s first chef, told 24 Heures. “He was a student that I enjoyed. I am completely stunned. I see no reason for such an act. He was a bright boy with great talent and an impressive work potential. He seemed to be perfect. I say this news is unfortunate.”
“This is a disaster for his family, for the Hotel de Ville and for Crissier,” Michel Tendon, the town’s trustee, told the Swiss newspaper.
“The planet has been orphaned by this exceptional chef,” tweeted Marc Veyrat, another three-star chef. “I am destroyed.”
La planète est orpheline de ce Chef d'exception, Benoît Violier. Je suis anéanti.
— Marc Veyrat (@marcveyrat) January 31, 2016
Although the deaths of his father and mentor clearly affected the young chef, many of his closest friends thought the intense pressure of running arguably the world’s greatest restaurant contributed to the tragedy.
“It is the mystery of life, of a man facing his destiny,” Gagnaire told 24 Heures. “I am extremely touched. I hope that the stress of this number one ranking is not the cause. It was an undeniable reward. Benoit seemed, unlike others, so peaceful.”
He added that Violier was set to attend the release of the new Michelin guide on Monday in Paris.
“Everything was fine when I saw him last week,” Pierre Henchoz, a friend who traveled the world on culinary missions with Violier, told the newspaper. “The restaurant has a reservation book filled to the brim for three months. … He did everything so right. He was available to any customer.
“And with this prestigious appointment, the whole world was calling,” he added. “Was there a fear of heights upon arriving at the summit?”