When the World’s Top Chef Killed Himself, He Took Secrets to His Grave
NICE, France — Far from the sophisticated environs of the Swiss restaurant voted best in the world in 2015, the sister of the late great chef Benoît Violier answered the phone in a small town in southwestern France on Tuesday, steeling herself to speak.
She knew the question would be about Violier, who grew up in Montils, this modest village of 800 people where his brother is a local alderman and the family is known for their love of hunting. But it was Benoît who left home, rapidly ascended the heights of haute cuisine, and then shocked the world when he inexplicably committed suicide Sunday at his home in Switzerland.
Violier, 44, was the head chef at the Hotel de Ville in Crissier, a suburb of Lausanne in the canton of Vaud, a restaurant the Michelin Guide called a “veritable temple of gastronomy.”
“He was my petit frère,” his sister said sadly, asking that her first name not be used. “That is all I can think of. He was my little brother. We miss him already. We read the stories. We have nothing to say. He was not depressed. He was not having money troubles. We have no more answers than anyone.”
That includes Swiss police who are still investigating the case but told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the cause of death by firearm, one of the guns Violier used to shoot game, was definitely suicide.
“This is Switzerland, madame, and we do not give additional information out when it is a suicide out of respect for the family,” Jean Sauterel, a spokesman for the local gendarmerie, told The Daily Beast. “We are discreet. But there was no foul play.”
Frédy Girardet, 79, who founded the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier and was considered one of the world’s greatest chefs, said he felt both distressed and frustrated after reading everything written about Violier’s death. Violier had often called Girardet his “idol,” which Girardet said almost made him wince, given what has happened.
“I don’t believe any of the reasons,” Girardet told The Daily Beast. “Maybe I am naïve but I was just there for dinner Friday night. Everything was fine. Benoît was in good humor. The restaurant was full. He was a man I loved very much and it’s such a tragedy. All I can think of is maybe he was too much of a genius. He got to the top so fast. Maybe his rise was too rapid for him. I wish I knew.”
The rest of the world may have been asking why Violier killed himself, but Violier’s widow, Brigitte, who worked, one restaurant staffer said, “24/7” with her husband at their restaurant, focused on the future. She remained in seclusion Tuesday with the couple’s son, Romain, 12, but insisted that the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier remain open.
On the menu Tuesday night were so-called legacy dishes like Girardet’s Bresse chicken served with blue winter leeks and truffles, or Philippe Rochat’s pig’s trotters from the Jura with black truffles, glazed with Madeira wine, or vegetable raviolis garnished with brown crab from the Ile de Ré. (Rochat, who took over the restaurant after Girardet left in 1996, was killed in a bicycling accident last year.)
“Brigitte wanted us to keep the restaurant going and continue the tradition,” Alessandro Egidi, the restaurant manager, said Tuesday. “She is very strong. She gave us our instructions and we are following them. We are a team of 53 and are devoted to Benoît. The restaurant is full tonight and tomorrow night.”
Pierre Keller, the retired head of the University of Art and Design in Lausanne and the president of the wine association for the canton of Vaud, said tonight he was going to the restaurant in Crissier, where he and a select group enjoy dinner along with cigars.
Keller said he has known the restaurant’s three chefs, Girardet, the late Philippe Rochat, and Violier, for a total of 45 years.
“Benoît was always in the kitchen no matter what,” Keller told The Daily Beast. “He was fantastic, so charming, so elegant. I still can’t believe it happened. I got the phone call at 6 p.m. Sunday and I was unable to speak. I know sometimes things are going on with people that you don’t ever know, but it’s hard to think that was true of Benoît. I was just at the economic forum at Davos and Benoît gave a dinner party there and all we did was laugh. We were joking, drinking, all was well. It was a fantastic night. Benoît was in wonderful shape.”
Keller, like many others interviewed by The Daily Beast, said he saw no evidence of marital or financial difficulties, and Violier was especially proud of his young son.
“He was just at the top of the mountain,” Keller said.
Anne Ramseier, a Geneva artist who worked closely with Violier and his wife when they took over the restaurant from Philippe Rochat in 2012, said she was also “almost irritated” at media theories that Violier cracked under the pressure of being such a highly-ranked chef.
“He was a perfectionist for sure,” Ramseier told The Daily Beast. “But he was also modest and well-adjusted. There were no problems with alcohol. He was often in a good mood. How could I know him and yet not know him? I can’t accept that.”
Colman Andrews, editor-in-chief of The Daily Meal and a foremost expert on food and wine, said Violier was “one of the real masters” yet only really known to “hardcore foodies in America.”
“Americans these days are more likely to follow avant-garde Spanish chefs or Scandinavians or Mexicans,” Andrews said. “But Violier was heir to this incredible culinary tradition. His food may seem tame to some people in the U.S. but they have no idea what a giant he was.”
Nor will they. The menus remain, but the genius is gone.