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Death of a great chef


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 24 February 2003 - 11:49 PM

Robert Brown prepared this topic; I am posting it because it reflects very recent news. Chef Loiseau's apparent suicide was reported in the New York Times among other media -- click here for the story.

* * *

It is still too soon to know what, if any, long-term repercussions the apparent suicide of Guide Michelin three-star chef Bernard Loiseau will have on the world of famous chefs in France, specifically on the effect, impact, and influence of the major guidebooks. Paul Bocuse, in whose restaurant Losieau had lunched the day before he died blames the two-point demotion (from 19/20 to 17/20) of Loiseau's restaurant La Cote d'Or in the Burgundy town of Saulieu, by the Guide Gault-Millau, as the immediate cause of his death. (One wonders how the publishers feel, having just garnered a load of much-needed publicity for giving Marc Veyrat's two restaurants its first-ever 20/20 rating, only to be blamed a week later by the world's most famous living chef for the death of one of France's culinary luminaries). Bocuse then goes on to lament the immense stress the guidebooks put on chefs with the continuous giving and taking away of stars and points.

This death in its shocking newness is obviously inviting speculation and reassessment. People will, at least for the near-term future, question the influence and the pain that guidebook ratings can inflict, at least the two most influential ones among those dining in France.

Do you think this sad event will have any significant, long-term effect on both the influence of guidebooks, especially at the highest echelons of culinary practitioners, or will this blow over?

Might there be a backlash among certain chefs that could take the form of not wanting to be rated in guidebooks?

Do guidebooks and their ratings serve such a vital function that they are indispensable and chefs, therefore, can do nothing about the way they presently published?

Finally, we shouldn't overlook the comments that other chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire, Pierre Troisgros and Jacques Lameloise made both about Loiseau and the nature of their profession (Gagnaire mentions about always being on the knife's edge and the unending stress and fatigue). Might Loiseau's death also change how the participants in the top end of the French restaurant profession think of their lives and how they view each other? How might the death of a talent from humble origins for whom achievement, fame and wealth were all, but who was thwarted in his ambitions either through personal foibles and/or macro-economic circumstances beyond his control, affect his profession?
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#2 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 02:10 AM

Naturally one has sympathy for Loiseau, one of my favourite food books is his 'Trucs, Asuces et Tours de Main',and his Cuisine de l'Eau has been highly influential, even on those who have possibly never heard of him. However, many people live under pressure and any creative endeavour set before the public invites criticism. Loiseau's work was no different. It would be fallacious to suggest that the guides somehow had a hand in his death. No, Loiseau killed Loiseau.

Edited by Lord Michael Lewis, 25 February 2003 - 03:35 AM.


#3 macrosan

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 02:46 AM

Paul Bocuse, in whose restaurant Losieau had lunched the day before he died blames the two-point demotion (from 19/20 to 17/20) of Loiseau's restaurant La Cote d'Or in the Burgundy town of Saulieu, by the Guide Gault-Millau, as the immediate cause of his death.

I have no idea of the qualifications of Bocuse to make such an allegation, nor are we given any evidence to support it. Frankly, I think it is therefore foolish and dangerous to speculate on the allegation.

Bocuse then goes on to lament the immense stress the guidebooks put on chefs with the continuous giving and taking away of stars and points.

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#4 Tonyfinch

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 04:05 AM

I can't comment on Loiseau,but on a more general point. People in the entertainment/leisure industries often complain about the pressure they're under. They reserve their biggest complaint for critics. And I can see what they mean.

You work,you slave (in the case of a chef literally over a hot stove) you study, you flog yourself to death, often for little financial reward, you practice and practice and work and work... and then you begin to achieve success and to reap some of the rewards of all your hard work when.........along comes Joe Schmo who knows nothing about nothing(in your opinion) with a bee in his bonnet because he's got a hangover or couldn't get his legover last night and with a mere stroke of a pen damns you to millions of readers because the service was a tad off that night because your best server was working with a migraine and didn't respond the moment fingers were snapped or the meat was a teeny weeny bit over/undercooked or there was a slightly over enthusiastic crowd in that night and the critic tells millions that the place is full of drunks and so on and so on.........

When Gordon Ramsay famously threw AA. Gill out of RHR a year or so ago my only reaction was to wonder why it doesn't happen more often:"If you think I'm gonna let you sit here and criticise everything I've worked so hard to build up just so you can impress some floozie or other.......etc. OUT!"


Is it fair? Well I suppose it is. We're being charged money. Often a lot of money. And as such we've a right to criticise and complain. And as Martin says no-one has to do it. Heat and kitchens and all that. But I sometimes wonder if the balance is wrong somehow. So hard to achieve success. So easy for a critic to destroy it, or at least to seriously damage it. And in the case of Michelin they don't even have to justify their views-a serious fault IMO.

In the end I'm a consumer and I suppose I come down on the side of the consumer. We need critics and guides to keep us up to date and to help us avoid being ripped off etc. And I suppose it's down to critics that people get success in the first place.

So in the end I think those in the leisure/entertainment industries who complain about critics are wrong...........but I can see what they mean.

#5 Basildog

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 05:18 AM

Tony..i think you give critics too much influence IMHO.From what i gather from reading egullet over the last year, people make their own mind up about places.Yes, guides and critics can raise or lower profiles, but has a critic ever made you stop going to a place?

#6 Wilfrid

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 07:32 AM

I entirely agree with Lord Michael. While one has heard and read a good deal about Loiseau, one knows nothing about his health, his personality and his private life. I find it inconceivable that an otherwise untroubled man would commit suicide for the reason suggested. I contend we have absolutely no idea what led to this sad event.

#7 chopjwu12

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 07:32 AM

Maybe its different in france and something like this will drive a chef over the edge. But i have to agree that there has to be more going on in ones life the loosing a star or a point to make them kill themselves. Maybe that was the icing on the cake or maybe it wasn't that at all. As a chef i know the preasure and stress there is in the highend of the business. You do walk the knives edge especially as an owner or a executive chef. But i could never see my self doing something like this just because a critic didn't think highly of me. But maybe thats what makes everyone different. Not everyone handles lifes bunps and bruises the same way. Either way he will be missed and it is a sad thing and my prayers go out to his family. But life goes on and in the long term this wont chaneg anything about critics and reviews. Because like it or not stars and points are what we in the industry strive for. Its the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Without them what do we have?

#8 Coop

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 09:51 AM

I am not familiar with the circumstances of Chef Loiseau's life or death. I just find it a tragedy when anyone takes thier own life, wether it is a street level junkie or the president of a corporation. That being said I find it obscene that anyone could blame the media that makes these chefs the superstars that they are.

How many of us would of heard of Bocouse, Troisgros, Point, Escoffier or Careme without the food press. The modern chef in most cases seeks out the praise and adoration of the masses. Without the media they would be loved, but in much smaller circles. It is when things go side ways that they say I want my life back! Well you can't have it back because you made your deal with the devil on the way up.
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#9 Tonyfinch

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 10:27 AM

Because like it or not stars and points are what we in the industry strive for. Its the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Without them what do we have?

Satisfied customers?

#10 Deacon

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 03:30 PM

I'm with LML: Loiseau killed Loiseau.

Imagine if Steven Spielberg had killed himself because Siskel & Ebert panned "1941." (Hard to conceive of, isn't it?) Instead, Spielberg ignored them and went on to direct "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." Imagine Francis Ford Coppola killing himself in the middle of filming "Apocalypse Now" because of all the production problems. Running a kitchen seems almost easy in comparison to filming a movie in the middle of Thailand during typhoon season.

I don't want to sound harsh or heartless, but being downgraded in Gault-Millau, presumably just provisionally, seems very little compared to what other great artists, in whatever field, have had to suffer. What are the writers of guidebooks and critics of all kinds supposed to do now, say to themselves "We'd better not be overly critical of his book/movie/restaurant/artwork because he might kill himself?"

#11 Jonathan Day

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Posted 26 February 2003 - 03:13 AM

Perhaps we can shift the focus from Loiseau himself (and note that there is another thread in the Food Media section devoted to the specific event) to the influence of external ratings.

It seems to me that there is some similarity between the exposure that a top chef receives and that of a CEO of a public company. And many top chefs (Ducasse, for example), function as CEOs, though I doubt most non-chef CEOs spend much time in their company kitchens. Loiseau floated his group on the Paris Bourse in 1998; in the last year its share value has slowly declined from €6.18 to €5.10. It is interesting that the events of the last few days have not provoked a sudden fall in the share price.

CEOs of big firms have become public figures. This was not true in the 1960s and 1970s, when most people in the US could not name the CEO of General Electric or IBM. Today, the working assumption is that the CEO "drives" or "steers" a company, no matter how large. Jeff Immelt probably doesn't go onto the factory floor to assemble aircraft engines, but we somehow see him as responsible for GE's forutnes.

Chefs, arguably have been public figures for a much longer period. It's hard to imagine Ducasse without Ducasse, or the French Laundry without Keller, despite some chefs' avowed intent to create institutions that survive them, and despite counterexamples like Taillevent that seem to go on from chef to chef.

CEO tenures have declined, and it has become more rather than less difficult to find qualified CEOs for large companies despite the global slowdown in the economy. CEOs now demand higher signing bonuses, wages and "golden parachute" arrangements. This is in part because of the personal risk a CEO takes on in taking office in a firm. If the company turns out to have accounting problems (Enron, Ahold, etc.) the CEO could land in jail. Even if it just faces a tough quarter or two, the CEO could be tossed out, with a shattered reputation.

I'll stop here, for the moment, though I think there's more that could be drawn out in the comparison.
Jonathan Day
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#12 robert brown

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Posted 26 February 2003 - 07:19 AM

A correction, Jonathan. Trading was suspended in Groupe Loiseau at .50 euros. I haven't seen yet if and when it has resumed. I imagine it will be a while before it does.

#13 Jonathan Day

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Posted 26 February 2003 - 09:21 AM

It's actually difficult to figure out what has happened here because the stock itself (listed on the 2nd market) is thinly traded and almost of the news covered the suicide; I could only find one mention of the shares being suspended.

According to Dow Jones News retrieval, the last trade was at €5.10. At present there is a "bid" (someone offering to buy) at 0.50 and an "ask" (someone offering to sell) at €3.73. Even if trading were not suspended, a trade with that wide a bid-asked spread would be unlikely to complete. The €0.50 sounds like little more than an opportunistic offer.
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#14 robert brown

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Posted 26 February 2003 - 10:13 AM

Jonathan, what would you advise management (probably the widow) to do next? There is hardly any name value left, I would think, which destroys the ancillary businesses such as books, consulting, and maybe the packaged foods. The main component is the hotel-spa-restaurant in Saulieu. Who will come to eat and stay there? What about the intrinsic value of the plant? How could one sell it? What about trying to lure a highly-promising young chef or someone from a major hotel?

Edited by robert brown, 26 February 2003 - 10:14 AM.


#15 pirate

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Posted 26 February 2003 - 02:03 PM

You would have to buy the Hotel de la Cote d"or at ten centimes to the euro to make it a business risk.

#16 robert brown

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Posted 26 February 2003 - 05:01 PM

The moderators have decided to turn the question I asked Jonathan two posts above into a topic of its own that we hope people from all walks of life will enjoy answering. Take a look at it ("What Bernard Loiseau Left Behind") and reply on that thread if your post is relevant.

#17 chefg

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Posted 28 February 2003 - 12:18 AM

Because like it or not stars and points are what we in the industry strive for. Its the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Without them what do we have?


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#18 SWoodyWhite

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Posted 28 February 2003 - 02:52 AM

The notion that Loiseau committed suicide because his rating in a guide slipped a couple of points may satisfy a romantic view of the circumstances, but is most likely total nonsense. Most suicides result from depression, which is a medical condition. When depression is not diagnosed as a medical condition, and treated as such, the depression can run out of control with tragic results. While something like the guide rating can act as a momentary trigger for the depression, the trigger can easily be anything else as well; it is the depression that must ultimately be blamed.

I wish a peaceful rest for Chef Loiseau's soul.
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#19 chopjwu12

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Posted 28 February 2003 - 09:30 AM

Because like it or not stars and points are what we in the industry strive for. Its the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Without them what do we have?

Satisfied customers?

You have to have customers come in in order to satisfy them. How exactly to you think you get customers to come in.......media. They are the first line. A restaurant will be nothing without some sort of media coverage be it done by themselves or by a reviewer.

#20 John Whiting

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Posted 02 March 2003 - 10:54 AM

Jonathan, your comparison between chefs and CEOs is intriguing. I would question whether ruthlessness, intransigence and elephantiasis of the ego are quite so essential to the success of a restaurant, at least on a modest scale; but so far as their collective notoriety is concerned, they do have one thing in common. Their newsworthiness depends in large measure on the dangers that attach to their profession. CEOs did not get nearly so much attention before their grosser illegalities were revealed and they began dropping like grunts in front-line trenches.

So the suicide of a chef or two will only serve, briefly, to fill a few empty tables. The collosseum would have been empty if all the gladiators had left the field under their own power.
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#21 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 02 March 2003 - 12:31 PM

your comparison between chefs and CEOs is intriguing. I would question whether ruthlessness, intransigence and elephantiasis of the ego are quite so essential to the success of a restaurant, at least on a modest scale;

I can assure you that they are.

#22 John Whiting

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Posted 02 March 2003 - 05:16 PM

Even I am not that cynical. I've encountered egos aplenty in the restaurant trade, but I've also known a few who were as humbly dedicated as the better sort of artist, scientist or scholar. And some who simply had fun.

Whichever category they fall into can usually be whiffed subliminally as soon as you walk into a restaurant.
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#23 Jonathan Day

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Posted 03 March 2003 - 04:16 AM

My understanding of John's premise is that "ruthlessness, intransigence, and elephantiasis of the ego" presumably on the part of the CEO, are essential to the success of a business. Or perhaps it is that most CEOs of large firms display these qualities.

Both are incorrect, in my experience. I've known a number of CEOs of large firms (those with, say, more than 10 000 employees). The best of them, those who lead companies that prosper over the long term, are far from the caricature of "chainsaw" Al Dunlap. They can be very reflective about their role versus those of their subordinates. Yes, a person at the top of a giant company can develop a big ego, and some corporate leaders have displayed astonishing greed and willingness to make "big bets" with their shareholders' funds. But most of them, in my experience, are reasonable people.

There are a few things in the corporate world that may lead CEOs away from their better nature, and it would be interesting to speculate about the extent to which these apply to chefs.

The first is that it's very difficult for a CEO of a large firm to get plain and honest feedback about his or her performance and behaviour. There's just too much at stake even for employees, suppliers, professional advisers to speak up. The best of them do, but the majority do not.

The second is the phenomenon of the "heroic CEO", which, surprisingly, is fairly recent. In the 1960s and 1970s, most CEOs were not well known. This changed in the 1980s and 1990s. The "heroic CEO" was supposed to be the sole driver, the person who called all the shots. He was responsible for a company's success and earned enormous sums when this happened; he was out on his ear if it failed. All sorts of groups -- media, boards, search firms, CEOs themselves -- colluded to bring this model about. The best recent study of this is Rakesh Khurana, Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs -- click here to order. Of course the new new thing is the "post heroic" CEO.

Unlike CEOs, my guess is that chefs have stood in this heroic role for a long time, perhaps for hundreds of years. Is there room for a "post heroic" chef? Restaurants such as Taillevent seem to survive the departure of a chef. This doesn't seem to be the norm, at least at the top of the league.

There is a sense in which any leader needs a degree of intransigence, at least in pursuit of an objective. Companies simply have too many opportunities to drift, and a "Hamlet-like" CEO who can't make up his or her mind will not help matters. Disraeli put it well: "the secret of success is constancy to purpose".

One thing that makes a CEO of a large company different to a chef is that it is impossible for even the most detail-orientated CEO to deal personally with the minutiae of a company's operations. Thomas Keller reportedly insists that his cooks store fish in the position in which they were swimming when alive, personally cleans tiny bits of the French Laundry kitchen, etc. In a large firm, these details must be delegated to others.
Jonathan Day
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