Most stars twinkle benignly from the heavens, enchanting us with their magical shine. But in the fevered firmament of haute cuisine, there are stars of a different sort that beam their powerful, far-reaching light from the pages of Le Guide Michelin, the hallowed culinary guidebook upon which a chef's reputation can, like the proverbial souffle, rise or fall. In The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, journalist Rudolph Chelminski chronicles the ill-fated career of celebrated three-star French chef Bernard Loiseau. A longtime friend of Loiseau, Chelminski renders a compassionate, though objective, portrait, including a succinct history and expose of the French food scene. Bernard Loiseau, like most of his famous culinary colleagues, began his cook's life at the very bottom. From his grueling apprenticeship in the kitchens of Les Freres Troisgros (Chefs Jean and Pierre Troisgros' famed three-star establishment), to his first day as head chef in a small Paris bistro, Loiseau had a single goal: to earn three Michelin stars. Thus, he lived a manic life of relentless toil, a punishing schedule of 16-hour days filled with the endless perfecting of his cuisine, constant public relations efforts and little-to-no time off. Eventually acquiring a once-legendary hotel and restaurant, La Cote d'Or, in the small town of Saulieu, Loiseau worked himself and his dedicated staff obsessively, finally garnering Michelin's highest honor. The cost, though, was dear: on the afternoon of February 24, 2003, exhausted and worried about rumors that Michelin intended to rescind one of his coveted stars, the 52-year-old chef shot himself. Inevitable sorrow and industry outrage followed in the wake of this tragedy. Like a cathartic, Bernard's desperate act released a torrent of feelings . . . that had been bottled up within the profession for decades, writes Chelminski.
Shortly before he died, fearing his fall from culinary stardom, Loiseau admitted to Chelminski, I pass my time trembling. Anyone who has ever dined in a Michelin-starred Gallic temple of gastronomy and even those of us for whom that experience awaits will find this revealing foray into the draconian, uber-competitive echelons of high cuisine fascinating if a bit repelling. Alison Hood trained as a chef, but left her toque behind for the writing life.