THE Michelin Guide has been accused of a cover-up over the suicide of the leading French chef Bernard Loiseau.
Previously unseen documents suggested that Michelin had told him it had serious reservations about the quality of his restaurant months before he shot himself.
Ten years ago, Loiseau was France’s most feted chef. The charismatic cook’s beaming face smiled from billboards, TV shows and recipe books. His restaurant, Le Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, Burgundy, was a favourite with the late French president Francois Mitterrand.
Robert de Niro would drop in by helicopter for his signature dish of frog’s legs with garlic puree and parsley sauce.
But on February 24, 2003, the chef finished his lunchtime service, rolled up his apron and drove home. Telling his 10-year old son - one of three children - to go and play outside, he went upstairs, locked the bedroom door and shot himself with a hunting rifle, a present from his wife.
His wife, Dominique, who took over the reins of the restaurant, described it as a ‘‘moment of madness’’ from a highly-strung ‘‘manic depressive’’ who was ‘‘capable of great moments of euphoria and periods of deep anxiety’’.
He was also steeped in debt after floating his culinary empire on the stock exchange and over-investing. Loiseau was known to be obsessed with losing a Michelin star, saying it would cost him ‘‘40 per cent’’ of his business.
But Paul Bocuse, the elder statesman of French gastronomy, instantly pointed the finger at Michelin’s rival, Gault & Millau, which had docked the chef two points to 17 out of 20 in its 2003 edition. ‘‘Bravo Gault & Millau, you won: your appraisal has cost the life of a man,’’ he said.
Next in line for public condemnation was Francois Simon, Le Figaro magazine’s waspish and influential food critic, who had published an article shortly before Loiseau’s death citing Michelin sources as warning that the third star of his flagship restaurant was ‘‘legitimately under threat’’.
Michelin denied ever threatening to withdraw a star, which Loiseau’s restaurant ended up keeping. But yesterday, L’Express magazine published a confidential note written by the guide’s then British head, Derek Brown, that suggests otherwise.
Although Mr Brown insisted this week that he never had ‘‘any real problem’’ with Loiseau’s cooking bar ‘‘a few details, like the temperature of his soup’’, minutes from his November 2002 meeting with Loiseau and his wife at his head office recount how he gave them a serious dressing-down.
‘‘I spoke of our concerns: irregularity, lack of soul, of recent character in the cuisine and readers’ mail that is VERY mixed in terms of quality,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Visibly ‘shocked’, [Loiseau] took me seriously. We’ll see.’’
Two days later, Mrs Loiseau sent a deeply apologetic response, promising to get their cuisine ‘‘back on track’’. Her husband apparently never recovered.
Mr Simon said yesterday he felt vindicated because he had merely reported on the stark warning. ‘‘Michelin did indeed envisage docking Bernard Loiseau a star. They wanted to pass me off as a killer, while Michelin exempted themselves of any responsibility,’’ he said. ‘‘I was thrown to the dogs, treated as a murderer and still am by some. They needed a scapegoat.’’
Mr Brown said: ‘‘There was no threat made to Bernard Loiseau of losing a star at any time. Michelin doesn’t threaten anybody. He asked to see me. People who want to come and talk about their restaurant are very welcome. The idea of telling him about the concerns we had about some of his cooking was in order to give him an opportunity to consider whether he wanted to do something about it, which he did, as it turned out.’’
Michael Ellis, the current director of Michelin, told L’Express: ‘‘These types of meetings are part of daily life at Michelin. I’m not surprised such a meeting took place. We don’t summon chefs. We only receive ones who wish to see us.’’
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