The cookbook in the photo, Mes Recettes de Terroir, is how I came to know Bernard Loiseau. As I read and cooked my way through this book, I came to love the spirit of this man, who states in his introduction that the greatest compliment he received as a chef was when a client told him, “Monsieur, your cooking reminds me of my mother’s.” The suicide of this renowned and beloved chef sent shock waves and terrible sadness through the gastronomic world, myself included. I find the suicide of a great chef almost impossible to contemplate, as the métier of cooking fantastically for others is a vocation that is so full of life, love, generosity, and creativity that it seems indomitable and inextinguishable.
Loiseau was someone who could wax euphoric for an hour over the taste of a tomato or the texture of a sauce, his friends commented. And his wife was quoted in Figaro as saying, “Les êtres exceptionnels sont fragiles; de véritables funambules qui peuvent descendre parfois très bas.” (Exceptional beings are fragile, veritable tightrope walkers who can sometimes sink very low.) And of course, she is right. An artist such as her late husband, who was extremely sensitive to all that is wonderful, was just as susceptible to the less-than-perfect. Add to this the fact that Bernard Loiseau was someone who gave indefatigably to everyone around him–family, friends, employees, clients, and the larger public–and you have someone likely to be even more fragile when life is less than perfect.
For his staff, many of whom had been with him in his most famous anchor restaurant, La Côte-d’Or in Saulieu, he was the bel oiseau. At their side 365 days of the year, Loiseau was deeply loved and respected by his équipe, some of whom had been with him for over 20 years and had thus themselves become personalities of his institution. Loiseau’s desire to love those around him enabled him to head one of the rare establishments where staff solidarity was incredibly strong.
Loiseau was awarded 17 points by the Gault-Millaut guide by 1977. One can only attempt to imagine the strain of having to maintain that rating (re-evaluated annually) for a quarter of a century. His rating fell from a high of 19 back to 17 recently, and the loss of those two points is considered, in part, the reason for Loiseau’s suicide. Like most chefs of his stature and talent, Loiseau had created a rather heavily-leveraged empire of multiple restaurants, book publishing, and labeled products.
It is almost always too much to expect that a great artist be, at the same time, a good businessman. After his company went public, Loiseau wryly commented that “J’arrive à maîtriser mes grenouilles mais pas la Bourse.” (I manage to master my frogs [froglegs] but not the stock exchange.) His diminishing quarterly returns received bad press, and many believe that the negative publicity, combined with recent attacks by restaurant critics and the loss of those two points in Gault-Millaut, was responsible for his despair and consequent demise. Paul Bocuse is leading a hue and cry in that direction, and many volatile French are calling for a boycott of restaurant guides in response to the loss of this beloved chef. It must certainly be true that the demands of corporate accountability must have been onerous for someone with Loiseau’s temperament, especially when many of his investors were some of his best clients and toward whom he felt great love and responsibility.
I know that I mourn the untimely death of this joyous man and gifted chef, whom I feel I lost just as I was getting to know him, culinarily speaking. I usually reserved cooking from his Mes Recettes de Terroir for our weekends in the country. There, where I am close to my vegetable garden and have fine local products at hand to dictate the evening’s meal, I felt most in synchronicity with the wonderful spirit of authenticity that imbues his book. I like to think that, whenever I cook one of his recipes and sit down to enjoy it with those I love in front of our big fireplace, the indefatigable spirit of Bernard Loiseau will still be living with us.
Copyright (c) Barbara Wilde