Chefs are the rock stars of France. So when Bernard Loiseau, a king of modern French cooking and a darling of the French media, killed himself in February 2003, the country reacted with disbelief.
Rudolph Chelminski's ''The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine" examines Loiseau's suicide in the context of French culinary history, delving deep into the mad passion that seems to drive many master chefs.
Loiseau, 52, shot himself at home after finishing the lunch shift at his restaurant, La Cote D'Or, one of only 25 in the country awarded three stars by the legendary Michelin Guide. He left no note. His restaurant had recently been downgraded in a lesser guidebook; perhaps the rumor that Michelin was about to do the same was too much for Loiseau to bear. (The rumor turned out to be false.)
His first wife, Chantal, recalled his obsession with exactness more than a decade earlier: ''He used to wake me up in the middle of the night. . . . He had to be permanently reassured. 'If I lose a star I'll blow my brains out,' he said." Chelminski suggests that a family history of bipolar disorder may have contributed to Loiseau's meteoric rise within the industry as well as his surprising suicide, and family stories seem to support this. According to Loiseau's younger brother, Remy, ''Bernard was all superlatives, and he could never hide anything. He wasn't one for nuance. With him, things were either fantastic or lousy."
Loiseau was born into the food business in 1951, practically on the floor of his grandfather's charcuterie, or butcher's shop. His mother ran the store; his father was a traveling salesman who spent a lot of time on the road and eating at little country inns that had fabulous food. After a dismal attempt at academics, young Bernard decided, at age 16, to try his hand at cooking. His father's connections eventually landed him an apprenticeship with renowned chefs Pierre and Jean Troisgros just 15 days before they received their third Michelin star.
Loiseau ''put a near-superhuman energy and drive into the service of his ambition," Chelminski writes. His former employers recognized this. ''We had no problem with his performance. You could see that he was made for this work," Pierre Troisgros said of Loiseau. ''But he also had something else. He had this . . . presence." Claude Verger said, ''His ambition was there right from the start. . . . He was the kind of guy who would be destroyed if you discouraged him."
Master chefs -- including Paul Bocuse, Verger, and Alain Ducasse -- described for Chelminski their experiences with Loiseau and what it was like to work as a lowly apprentice, and these passages bring the stress and rigors of haute cuisine to life while showing the reader how Loiseau's fresh cooking style developed.
Chelminski is a devout follower of the French cuisine scene and a close friend of the Loiseau family, and it shows. That is both a positive and a negative relationship. Mouthwatering descriptions abound, though you may have to dig out your rusty high school French to fully appreciate them. Almost every page of the book is peppered with italicized French words. The book is crowded with minute details and inside jokes, so much so that Chelminski has to footnote some of his colorful quips.
Unfortunately, the frequent tangents and meandering descriptions make the story choppy and confusing at times, and the book sometimes takes on a fawning tone that makes it seem as if the writer expected Loiseau himself to be reading it. But the behind-the-scenes look at the kitchens of some of France's finest restaurants is fascinating, and interviews with Loiseau's friends, family, and former co-workers make the book a gossipy read.