The Perfectionist: life and death in haute cuisine, by Rudolph Chelminski

Tragic chef who reached for the stars

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The Independent Culture

Gaining three Michelin stars is like climbing an impossible mountain, though there is one significant difference for the restaurateur. Having attained the summit, he has to repeat the feat twice a day. This absorbing book tells the story of an obsessive who reached this pinnacle and paid a terrible price.

Gaining three Michelin stars is like climbing an impossible mountain, though there is one significant difference for the restaurateur. Having attained the summit, he has to repeat the feat twice a day. This absorbing book tells the story of an obsessive who reached this pinnacle and paid a terrible price.

Bernard Loiseau grew up in Clermont-Ferrand, dominated by the Michelin tyre factory, but his life was to be entwined with Michelin in a different way. Bernard's father, a travelling salesman, secured an apprenticeship for his academically hopeless son with the Troisgros brothers. These obsessive siblings scooped three stars for their rural restaurant during Loiseau's stint in the late Sixties. The tall, garrulous boy ended up cooking the staff meals.

Moving to Paris, Loiseau's first words to his new employer were: "I want three stars". Though there are only 20 establishments with this accolade in France, chef-entrepreneur Claude Verger took Loiseau seriously. Soon, the youngster was the talk of fashionable Paris.

In 1975, Verger set him up in the Cote d'Or hotel in Burgundy. Serving dishes "that emphasised the lightness of last-minute legerdemain", Loiseau gained two Michelin stars by 1981. He also caught the eye of GaultMillau, the Michelin Guide's major rival. Loiseau specialised in classical haute cuisine with a twist. He even offered the ultimate cliché of frog's legs, transformed into "the world's most sophisticated finger food".

After buying out Verger, Loiseau borrowed heavily to create a hotel that matched the perfection of his food. In 1991, he gained his third star. For a while, "it was a great time to be Bernard Loiseau". Despite his eminence, he refused to take a day off, relentlessly on the prowl for the most minute flaw.

Inevitably, however, a very minor degree of slippage occurred. It may just have been a reduction of salt in Loiseau's sauces. Michelin told him the stars were safe, but maybe the sauces weren't quite as tasty. Gault-Millau demoted the Cote d'Or from 19 points to 17. It was an unbearable slight. Despite his capable, supportive wife, three young children and devoted staff, the perfectionist reached for his shotgun.

Loiseau's bipolar personality took him to the top of his profession but also the depths of depression. He was oddly inexperienced as a chef and the very speed of his ascent meant that he lacked the tedious accumulation of in-depth knowledge.

Rudolph Chelminski, a veteran American correspondent in Paris, tells his story with verve, energy and insight. Though his prose is occasionally a little overheated, no book will tell you more about the effort involved in producing the best food in the world. Anyone who reads it will talk about little else for days after.

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