Correspondent Bob Simon has the story of one great chef, Bernard Loiseau, whose face was familiar all over France.
They called him “The People’s Chef” because he reached out to everyone - rich and poor. He was a man of huge ambition, but sadly, he was also a man who had fallen into deep despair.
Loiseau was always on television, always talking about food and eating. He loved the limelight, and loved being a celebrity. And the French, in turn, idolized him. He was that rare creature: a three-star chef.
The British have their royalty… the Americans have their movie stars… but the French have their chefs.
“If you are a great chef, everybody knows you. The president, the taxi driver, everybody. You are - it's a star in France to be a famous chef. And Bernard was the most popular chef in France. Everybody knew him,” says Dominique Loiseau, a journalist in Paris before she married Bernard in 1989.
Dominique gave up her career to help her husband achieve his life’s dream — winning three stars from the Michelin Guide, the highest honor bestowed on any European chef.
“At 15, he decided to have three stars, and that was, I think, an obsession for him,” says Dominique. “And when he got it, he wanted to keep it.”
He got it 12 years ago, a story that made the front page of the New York Times, and has kept it ever since.
Dominique recalls the day Loiseau received the third star: “We opened the champagne in the kitchen, and so it was something - for Bernard, it was something very special.”
Loiseau’s final television appearance, his funeral earlier this year after he had committed suicide, was broadcast live on French TV. Thousands stopped what they were doing that day to watch and mourn. Many of them couldn’t fathom why someone who appeared to love life would put a rifle in his mouth and take his life.
Loiseau was 52 years old. Besides Dominique, he left behind three young children. And he left behind a multimillion dollar empire: three bistros in Paris, a line of gourmet frozen food, six cookbooks, and the pride of his life — his hotel and three-star restaurant, La Cote d’Or.
Located in the quaint village of Saulieu in the country’s Burgundy region, La Cote d’Or is one of only 25 restaurants in France - culinary temples, really – that Michelin has awarded three stars. Those stars are the reason hundreds of food lovers each year make the pilgrimage to La Cote d’Or. For many of them, it’s the meal of a lifetime.
Loiseau liked to say that he was a merchant of happiness. What he meant, of course, was that he sold happiness to other people — happiness that accompanied one of his incomparable meals. But Loiseau himself was rarely happy. He suffered demons. And what he feared most was that Michelin would remove a star - that coveted third star that meant the world to him.
“I must tell you that two days before, I remember, he came back in the evening. It was 11 p.m., and he says, ‘No, Dominique, I'm sure.’ I say, ‘You're sure about what?’ And he says, ‘Now, I know the press want to kill me.’ I said, ‘Bernard, please,’” says Dominique.
"I think it was not true. It was really not true. But it was like that in his mind."
A short time before Loiseau committed suicide, GaultMillau — a French restaurant guide less influential than Michelin — lowered La Cote d’Or’s rating from 19 to 17. That hurt Bernard.
About the same time, a story in the French newspaper Le Figaro said that Michelin, too, would soon take away a star. The story wasn’t true. When the Guide came out, Loiseau still had his three stars. He knew that, but depressed, he killed himself anyway.
“You never think at this point somebody’s going to kill himself for this,” says Hubert Couilloud, the maitre ‘d at Le Cote d’Or. He had worked for Loiseau for more than 20 years and knew him well. And Hubert couldn’t help noticing in the weeks before the suicide how depressed Loiseau was.
“The last week, he was so tired and so fed up (with) everything, and he say he was just walking around in the kitchen, and here, and he say, ‘I’m not good enough. I’ve -- I did what I could, but I’m not good enough. I’m not real good,’” recalls Couilloud. “I said, ‘No, don’t say this. You’re the most known chef in France, and I mean one of the most known in the world’ … and day after day, maybe the last week, was crazy time. Crazy.”
Derek Brown is the editor-in-chief of the Michelin Guide. He’s the first foreigner to hold the job. Its guidebook is considered the Food Bible. Win a third star from Michelin and the world comes knocking at your door. But for a chef to keep a third star, to maintain such extraordinarily high standards, requires tremendous effort and is incredibly stressful.
Michelin has been accused of unduly pressuring its three-star chefs. But Brown denies this and says it’s the chefs who pressure themselves.
“They're the ones that decide what level of cooking they're going to do. We have never said to anybody what they must do. We have never said, ‘You've got to cook three-star food as of today,’” says Brown. “We couldn't do that. So any pressure that they have is from them or from their peer group. And we simply go along and judge what they're all doing.”
But there’s no doubt Loiseau did feel the pressure. He feared he was losing ground to younger, more adventuresome chefs. And he thought, in his depressed state of mind, that it was only a matter of time before Michelin would take away a star.
If you're a chef in France, your ambition is to get your third star. But once you have it, there's nowhere to go but down.
“That's true in any walk of life,” says Brown. “Because nothing stands still in this life, does it? So they put the pressure on themselves. And if somebody else comes along and does just a little bit better and then the whole thing moves up a cog, then they've all got to go with it.”
And Loiseau went with it because it was the only thing he ever wanted - to be a world-class chef, to serve perfect meals every day to every person. And he wanted to be famous. Nothing else mattered.
But, did his food really live up to his fame? There was only one way to find out. Simon invited Mort Rosenblum, a Paris-based, American journalist who writes books about food, to join him for a feast at Bernard Loiseau’s.
Every morning, carefully selected provisions arrive at the back door of Loiseau’s restaurant - some of them still alive. They’re taken into the kitchen, manhandled, and turned into incredible delicacies. The kitchen is now under the command of Patrick Bertron, Loiseau’s long-time right-hand-man, who became head chef.
He’s got a tough act to follow. But judging from his asparagus, which Rosenblum compares to a painting, he’ll be fine. This may be Bertron’s kitchen now, but the food is still prepared Loiseau’s way. Loiseau revolutionized French cuisine by using natural juices and concentrated sauces, eliminating nearly all the cream and butter and egg yolks found in traditional French cooking.
Taste the lobster and you’d never guess it was missing any ingredient. And that was Bernard’s magic.
“His - Loiseau’s whole philosophy of food - start with simplicity and work on it. And that, you know, that's essentially France,” says Rosenblum.
But Loiseau’s isn’t just for the rich. Working people will save up for a meal, too. “Absolutely,” says Rosenblum. “The French really eat well and take good vacations. They spend their money on this kind of thing. This is what they care about … Food is what holds this country together.”
The sun comes up on another day at La Cote d’Or. Bertron checks out the day’s deliveries to make sure they measure up to his three-star standards. Inside, Madame Loiseau now runs the empire her husband created, and she gets to worry about keeping that third star. Hubert is at his station in the dining room.
Perfection-on-a-plate is being prepared in the kitchen for another happy pilgrim who will probably never forget it. And only a stone’s throw away from them all is the picturesque cemetery where Bernard Loiseau - brilliant and tormented - lies buried.
Dominique says she’s facing the future with some sadness, but with confidence.
“We are a lot of—what we say, ‘esperance’ [hope] here,” says Dominique. “Immediately after Bernard’s death, we had this hope feeling. And we were going to make it like Bernard would want us to do. And we do everything for Bernard."