The Death of Star Chef Bernard Loiseau

New documents shed light on the suicide of the chef who inspired Pixar’s Ratatouille. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the unforgiving world of epicurean rankings.

01.25.13 9:45 AM ET

When famed French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in the head in his bedroom with a hunting rifle in 2003, the culinary set wept over losing one of the world’s greatest chefs—and then almost immediately blamed two top gastronomic authorities, Gault&Millau and Michelin, for pushing him over the brink.

By sprinkling the fairy dust that comes with high rankings over the innovative chef, who was responsible for helping pioneer nouvelle cuisine on the French scene in the late 1970s, the two esteemed bibles of indulgence had catapulted Loiseau to pop-star status by immortalizing his gastronomic genius. In doing so, they had created a level of fame the chef was unable to deal with and one he was ultimately incapable of maintaining. 

The success of the empire his achievements had created (including three restaurants in Paris and the grandiose three-star La Côte d’Or restaurant in Burgundy) relied on the guidebooks’ superior ratings and high rankings to keep the finicky customers who consult the Michelin stars before making reservations. Once the ratings decreased, so did the number of customers. Ultimately Loiseau, saddled in debt and fearful his star was about to fall, took his own life.

For the past decade both publications have denied indirect involvement with the chef’s death, but now new documents published in the French magazine L’Express suggest Loiseau was on the verge of losing his three-star rating and under insurmountable pressure to come up with a way to maintain his ranking, despite his enviable success. When he took his life, his wife, Dominique, who had given him the rifle as a gift years earlier, called the tragedy a “moment of madness” from a man capable of “great moments of euphoria and periods of deep anxiety,” according to The Telegraph, which says Loiseau suffered from manic depression.

He had dedicated his life to gaining the approval of the secret inspectors who ranked the world’s top restaurants. Those who worked with him in his kitchens told tales about how he would throw out full plates of food if a drop of sauce was amiss and how he was obsessive about odor, something he felt the nameless guidebook judges might confuse with the smell of the food.

In an interview in the late 1980s, he said it was his “life’s ambition” to earn three Michelin stars, which he finally did in 1991 as chef and owner of La Côte d’Or restaurant. At the height of his celebrity, he had written dozens of cooking books and was the topic of scores of glossy-magazine articles. He also had a high-end frozen-food line and was one of the first television celebrity chefs to become a household name among foodies. With each accolade, Loiseau’s wealth grew, but so did his insecurities.

Then it all fell apart. In the late 1990s Loiseau’s star was starting to wane. He lost two toques in the Gault&Millau guide, dropping him to just 17 out of 20 points—enough to deter the jet set from booking a table. But more importantly, rumors ran wild that he was about to lose one of his three Michelin stars at La Côte d’Or. French magazine Le Figaro’s head food critic, Françcois Simon, originally leaked excerpts from the papers that are now just coming to light, hinting that Loiseau’s ranking was “legitimately under threat,” which many say was the last straw. Loiseau had once told a French journalist that he would kill himself if he ever lost his three stars and that his business would lose 40 percent of its revenue by even the smallest dropping in rank. Apparently he meant what he said.

But when Loiseau killed himself, even Simon was blamed for spreading lies that lead to the great chef’s demise. Simon always insisted that he was just reporting what he found and that he bore no responsibility for Loiseau’s decision to take his own life. “I was thrown to the dogs, treated as a murderer,” Simon told The Telegraph. “They needed a scapegoat.”

After Loiseau’s suicide, Michelin denied any plans to pull a star, despite Simon’s investigative reporting, and the blame went to Gault&Millau, with one of Loiseau’s contemporaries, chef Paul Bocuse, saying at the time, “Bravo, Gault&Millau, you won: your appraisal has cost the life of a man.”

But in the documents published by L’Express, it appears that Simon was right. According to the papers, Loiseau had been warned in a personal note by the guidebook’s then-chief, Derek Brown, that his restaurant lacked “soul” and was falling from grace. In leaked minutes from the November 2002 meeting of inspectors, Brown reported to his team that he had told Loiseau that there was a problem, outlining his concerns as “irregularity” and “mixed quality.” The L’Express piece also includes a desperate plea from Loiseau’s wife, promising Brown that they would get “back on track.” Asked for comment, Michelin in Paris declined to comment on the L’Express exposé or accusations that it covered up anything involving Loiseau’s suicide.

Recently, Michelin inspectors, who are sworn to secrecy, have broken rank to reveal the sordid side of their trade. The most surprising is that to the inspectors themselves, often underpaid and overworked, the rankings aren’t quite as valuable as they should be.

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One former inspector, Pascal Rémy, wrote a critical condemnation of Michelin in his bestselling French book, L’Inspecteur Se Met à Table, or The Inspector Sits Down at the Table, in which he revealed that it wasn’t always all about the food and that often the inspectors played favorites when doling out stars. His book was based on a diary he kept for 15 years as an inspector, in which he lamented the bad pay and loneliness of being a kingmaker and that, despite the abundance of good meals, it often felt akin to a sort of culinary slavery.

He also revealed that due to cutbacks, there weren’t even enough inspectors to visit all starred restaurants each year, meaning many kept their stars whether they deserved it or not. After all, reviewing meals that often start at $200 is an expensive endeavor. And while there are fewer than 90 three-starred Michelin restaurants in the world, there are many hundreds of one- and two-star restaurants that still need to be reviewed, not to mention those in the running for stars that never make it.

Rémy was fired upon publication of the book.

In 2009 The New Yorker also ran an anonymous interview with another tortured inspector in a piece called “Lunch With M.” Among other delicious details, the piece revealed that even the inspectors rarely met top Michelin execs, even though their critiques easily made or ruined the future of major restaurants. “Not everyone is convinced that anonymous experts with bottomless expense accounts are the key to a dependable restaurant guide,” wrote John Colapinto, who authored the piece.