When news filtered down through the American press that Bernard Loiseau, the celebrated chef of France's La Cote D'Or hotel, had taken his own life in February 2003, the details of the story sparked some degree of confusion, if not downright bemusement. According to most reports, Loiseau's suicide followed a rare flurry of negative reviews from the press, including a two-point deduction (on a 20-point scale) from GaultMillau and rumors of a devastating one-star demotion (from a perfect three) from the Michelin Guide, long the gold standard of French cuisine. It's hard for outsiders to grasp the concept of "death by review"—what's keeping Pauly Shore alive?—but Rudolph Chelminski's The Perfectionist places it in a satisfying context, defining both the dramatic stakes of French high cuisine and the brittle temperament that could not sustain its ebbs. In a country where three-star chefs are as recognized and exalted as the President, even the best have trouble keeping up with the fashionable changes in taste, and the fall from grace can be precipitous. Add to that Loiseau's bipolar disorder, and it was a recipe for disaster on any menu.
From the start, Loiseau's ambition and exuberance were evident to anyone in his vicinity, though to some it smacked of juvenile impudence. Left to languish after his apprenticeship with the famed Troisgros brothers, who didn't take well to his man-child brashness, Loiseau caught a huge break when he hooked up with Claude Verger, an ambitious restaurateur with a similarly energetic approach to the trade. After Loiseau finally got a restaurant of his own in 1975, the year he took over stewardship at La Cote D'Or, that philosophy developed into what he called "cuisine des essences," a minimalist style that was fundamentally classical, but emphasized simplicity, with only three or four distinct flavors on the plate and no heavy sauces. As he and a well-chosen staff brought the crumbling provincial spot to its former glory, the French press took notice, including the vaunted Michelin Guide, which nudged him slowly up the ladder from no stars to three. Then there was nowhere to go but down.
Though Chelminski's prose could also stand to cut back on the heavy sauce, he thoroughly understands the traditions and pressure of haute cuisine, and his personal encounters with Loiseau help draw out an utterly credible psychological profile. The chapter on French food criticism alone could be spun off into a second fascinating book, rife with stories of shifting standards and fickle politics. One of Loiseau's favorite catchphrases, "The battle is never over," speaks to his decades-long engagement in a culinary war that would leave even the strong-willed feeling fatigued. Though Chelminski acknowledges the deep personal flaws that led to Loiseau's undoing, The Perfectionist conveys the unabashed joy of a great meal, and the man's unwavering generosity in wanting to please his clients. In the end, he simply tried too hard.