The Perfectionist

Life and Death in Haute Cuisine

By Rudolph Chelminski
Gotham. 354 pp. $27.50
Friday, May 27, 2005

Chapter One

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

On the Monday evening of February 24, 2003, a stupefying announcement broke into the 11 p.m. news bulletins throughout French radio and TV: Bernard Loiseau, chef and owner of the Côte d'Or restaurant in the Burgundy town of Saulieu, had been found dead in his home at age fifty-two, an apparent suicide. Tuesday morning, as more detail filtered out from police and gendarme reports, the earlier suicide speculation was confirmed: death by self-inflicted gunshot to the head. The arm was the victim's own shotgun-by cruel irony, a recent present from his wife.

France is a country where Latin hyperbole often colors judgments and pronouncements, but this time the population was truly shocked. More than a big story, this was an event of national and even international proportions. For several consecutive days Loiseau's death-no, not Loiseau's death, Loiseau's suicide, that was the part that was so staggering-continued to be the lead story in papers and prime-time TV shows from one end of the country to the other, shouldering aside George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and Donald Rumsfeld. For a nation that virtually defines itself by food, where restaurants are solemnly appraised, ranked, and debated the way football and soccer clubs are in less enlightened societies, where provincial chefs bathe in an esteem equal to that of the philosophers and essayists who strut and fret and solve the problems of the world in the Paris limelight, the news was inconceivable, a contradiction in terms.

This was not just some local notable, a mere politician, ecclesiastic, captain of industry, or other such inglorious personage. This was Bernard Loiseau the chef, arguably the most famous in France (and therefore the world), a man whose name-recognition score among the French general population-nine out of ten-was of presidential proportions. He was a cult figure of worldwide reputation, one of the gods of the trade, a man in the prime of life at the top of his profession, one of only twenty-five in the country then holding the coveted honor of a three-star rating in the Guide Michelin, the sole and true arbiter of the restaurant business. His hotel-restaurant complex at the gateway to the great Burgundy vineyards was more than luxurious. Simply put, it was perfection, or about as close to perfection as our poor human condition allows: thirty-two opulent suites of noble wood paneling, artisan tile, and polished marble, where authentic period furniture stood, cheek by jowl, with all the latest electronic gadgetry, Jacuzzis, and walk-in showers vast enough for a basketball team; a beautiful English garden custom-made for thinking green thoughts in a green shade while contemplating the swarm of infinitesimal bubbles aspiring heavenward in a flûte of champagne; a spa, workout room, and hammam; heated indoor and outdoor pools; an eighteenth-century billiards table; a library; a kiddies' playroom; one enormous fireplace in the bar-lounge and two smaller ones in intimate sitting rooms; and a monumental wooden staircase built by the compagnons du devoir, wrapped around a panoramic elevator. And, of course, there was the dining room-or, rather, three of them: two smaller ones for conferences and parties and the main one, a gorgeous hexagon overlooking the garden, where up to one hundred guests sat with a geometric latticework of wooden support beams above their heads and waxed stone pavés beneath their feet.

All of this was served by an ultramodern kitchen-a chef's glittering stainless steel dream equipped with every imaginable tool, machine, and instrument-and a twenty-five-strong cooking staff dedicated to turning out the signature cuisine des essences that had made the boss of the place a household name wherever in the world gourmets gathered to talk about great meals they had enjoyed or would be enjoying the day after tomorrow.

Bernard Loiseau had everything: a talent and drive that seemed inexhaustible; an eager young personnel that was entirely devoted to him and whose easygoing skill and aplomb was the envy of the trade; the (frequently jealous) recognition of his peers and the highest professional awards; the légion d'honneur personally pinned onto his lapel by the president of the republic in a gilt salon of the Élysée Palace in Paris; the respectful attention of journalists, universally intrigued by a personality so forceful and charismatic that he had achieved national stardom on radio and TV. The icing on the cake was his slim, attractive, and highly intelligent wife, Dominique, and the three bright, healthy young children she had given him. All this and he does away with himself! How could this happen? It was simply incomprehensible.

But of course there was more to it than the simple void of an enigma. Under the surface of Loiseau's brilliant success there lay a vast insecurity nervously cohabiting with a vast ambition. There was the ideal of a venerable tradition to be worthy of, or even surpass: the excellence in hospitality that over the years had made the French provinces synonymous with a warmth of welcome that put the snarling Parisians to shame and reconciled countless millions of visitors with the Gallic nation. There was a madly obsessive perfectionism in chasing that ideal. Obviously there was also human frailty. And there was the curse of Saulieu.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the tragedy, though, is this: Everything considered, it was not so surprising. Such a thing could have happened before, and it could happen again, because the world of haute gastronomie française in which Bernard Loiseau had been stewing for thirty-five years is a very particular, very peculiar kind of pressure cooker. To grasp a bit of the pleasures and satisfactions-but also the constraints, vexations, and pain-of that world, it is helpful to jump back in time. Half a century or so will do.

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté luxe, calme et volupté. It was with this bewitching phrase that a French writer, paraphrasing Baudelaire, had described another country inn 150 miles to the south of Saulieu in the mid-fifties. The place in question was the hotel-restaurant called La Pyramide, in the textile and leatherworking town of Vienne, lying on the banks of the Rhône south of Lyon. The owner and guiding genius of La Pyramide was a figure of near-legendary reputation, even in his lifetime: a huge, towering presence named Fernand Point. You can make a good case for saying that the story of Bernard Loiseau began there, because Fernand Point and La Pyramide remain, today still, the benchmarks against which French provincial inns, their proprietors, and the indefinable aura called style are inevitably measured. You cannot understand the saga of Bernard Loiseau-or, I daresay, the French themselves-without understanding something of Fernand Point, because, in this curious, toilsome line of business that they handle better than anyone else in the world, he incarnated the best qualities of a wonderfully talented, frequently endearing, but perpetually maddening people.

By today's standards, La Pyramide of Point's time probably would not be viewed as particularly plush. A three-story country manor faced with russet stucco and roofed with the rounded tiles characteristic of the southern half of France, its ground floor was almost entirely occupied by an airy, generously proportioned dining room, while outside, a wide terrace overlooked a sun-dappled garden interlaced with red clay pathways over which soared a magnificent stand of platanes, the plane trees that are to France what the great elms had been to America before the blight laid them low. It was in a corner of this garden that Point ritually began his day around 10 a.m., enveloped like a Christo wrapping in an immaculate white cloth as Monsieur Chazal, Vienne's number-one barber, proceeded with his matutinal shave. Close at hand, in one of the garden's several stone vases-this one left purposely free of flowers-a magnum of champagne exhaled its vapors over the shoal of cracked ice in which it bathed. In Point's hand was a Baccarat crystal flûte that ever and anon he raised to his lips.

"I enjoy a cup of champagne upon rising and a cup in the evening before turning in," Point used to say. "Nor do I fear to drink others between the two."

Point loved life, loved his trade and his restaurant, loved eating and drinking, and loved people-the perfect qualities to make an aubergiste. He instinctively understood that a great provincial restaurant was not a place for Parisian humbug and vanity but rather a refuge from the pressures and travails of workaday life, an island of tranquility where clients could snatch a few hours of civilized pleasure-precisely the luxe, calme et volupté that La Pyramide came to represent for two generations of French gourmets-at the cost of a few judiciously spent francs.

In 1933, when the Michelin guide first began ranking French restaurants in Paris and the provinces with its system of one, two, and three stars, La Pyramide fell quite naturally into the top three-star category. Point's cuisine was a personal, freewheeling derivation of the grand old Escoffier tradition, simplified and trimmed of the palatial ostentation common to big-city hotel restaurants where it held pride of place, and where he had learned the trade as apprentice, commis, and sous-chef. At the upper end, Point was perfectly capable of strutting his stuff with showpieces like turbot à l'amiral, which required two sauces, one based on white wine and the other on red, or the even more complex filets de sole Brillat-Savarin, a creamy lobster mousse jacketed in sliced truffles, surrounded by poached filets of sole on puff-pastry croustades, each filet topped with a lobster tail scallop and a ruinously thick slice of T. melanosporum, the black truffle that does for French cuisine what a Wonderbra does for an ambitious ingénue.

This was good, grand old nineteenth-century stuff, just right for eliciting an oh, là là chorus as the maître d'hôtel waltzed to the table with the platter, but it was relatively rare for Point. The dishes that are identified with his heritage today are the simple regional specialties that he brought to an apotheosis: gratin of crayfish tails, roast truffled chicken, foie gras encased in brioche. He did not fear to go simpler still, with various omelets, trout au bleu or just a hot Lyonnais sausage served with cubed potatoes. Whatever the dish, though, Point was intransigent when it came to total freshness; nothing was stocked, nothing prepared and left over from the day before. He insisted that his cooks begin each day with a naked kitchen and start all over again, and he took pleasure in patrolling the cooking premises, reaching high up on shelves and into cupboards to ensure that some wise guy hadn't squirreled away a work-saving container of fond de volaille or glace de viande. Point's stubbornness meant a lot of finicky handwork for the kitchen crew, but it guaranteed that only the freshest produce and top quality confections found their way onto his clients' plates.

Paul Bocuse, the ageless emperor of the French restaurant scene and Point's favorite apprentice, remembered the great man doing his daily marketing, selecting his fish, flesh, and fowl to be delivered to the cooks waiting in his kitchen while his wife, Mado, penned the day's menu in blue ink in her fine, strong script.

"It was la cuisine du moment," Bocuse explained. "In the big Paris restaurants where I worked afterward, the chef ordered provisions to fit the pre-established specialties already printed on the menu. Each morning the maître d'hôtel would come into the kitchen with a ritual question: 'What should we push today?' There was always food left over from the night before that they had to get rid of on a priority basis. Monsieur Point would have none of that. He made a fresh, clean start every morning."

Bocuse learned Point's lessons well and went on to apply them with tremendous success in his own restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or on the banks of the Saône just north of Lyon. So well did Bocuse apply them, in fact, that he eventually surpassed his master in notoriety, and became the greatest international star of French cuisine of the postwar period-precisely the model that Bernard Loiseau chose to emulate a generation later. Bocuse's version of la cuisine du moment became a founding pillar of what was soon to be known as la nouvelle cuisine française. Much more than delicate little portions of pretty food on oversized plates, much more than sauces written in disappearing ink or the precious creations and daring (usually silly) combinations of ingredients by chefs who took themselves for artistes, the secret and soul of nouvelle cuisine lay in the simple act of following Point's insistence on cooking according to the day's market, cooking it at the last minute, individually for each client, and cooking it perfectly.

It was in Vienne under Point that Bocuse and a host of his brothers in arms learned the sophisticated simplicity that was to become the guiding principle of modern cooking. Point, a man who enjoyed maxims and aphorisms, never tired of telling his young pupils that it is the simplest dishes that are the hardest to master. To this end, he devised an infallible test for any passing professionals who entertained the idea of perhaps going to work for him: he asked them to fry an egg. Faced with the invariable failure, Point would cry "Stop, unhappy man-you are making a dog's bed of it!" And then he would proceed to demonstrate the one and only civilized manner of treating an egg:

Place a lump of fresh butter in a pan or egg dish and let it melt-that is, just enough for it to spread, and never, of course, to crackle or spit; open a very fresh egg onto a small plate or saucer and slide it carefully into the pan; cook it on heat so low that the white barely turns creamy, and the yolk becomes hot but remains liquid; in a separate saucepan, melt another lump of fresh butter; remove the egg onto a lightly heated serving plate; salt it and pepper it, then very gently pour this fresh, warm butter over it.

"Du beurre! Donnez-moi du beurre! Toujours du beurre!" Point insisted: "Butter! Give me butter! Always butter!" As nutritionally incorrect as the battle cry may ring today in our cholesterol-obsessed times, he was only underlining an essential truth of the trade: French cuisine lives and breathes butter. Much fine cooking can be done without butter, but not the great syllabus of the French classics. Even Loiseau, who would go on to create a mini-revolution by largely eschewing fats with his cuisine des essences, had no choice but to sneak the magic ingredient into many of his dishes, if only by a discreet back door. Butter is elegance, suavity, and depth of flavor, even if you refuse to pronounce the B-word in public.


© 2005 Rudolph Chelminski