When Bernard Loiseau killed himself on February 24, 2003, his death was reported on every French newscast and in every French newspaper. Three thousand mourners attended his funeral. According to a survey, nine out of ten French people knew Loiseau’s name. In the United States, however, the passing of the chef and owner of La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, a man who had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, went largely unremarked. Only in France, as Rudolph Chelminski explains in The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, does a masterful chef command the same celebrity as an athlete or a rock star does in the Stateseven among the many people who could never pay up to a thousand dollars for dinner for two.
How Loiseau rose from relatively humble beginnings to being the operator of a three-star restaurant and inn, and how his story illuminates the wider world of French cuisine, is the subject of The Perfectionist. Chelminski has been over some of this ground before, in decades of magazine articles and in The French at Table: Why the French Know How to Eat Better than Any People on Earth and How They Have Gone About It, from the Gauls to Paul Bocuse (1985). In this earlier book, Chelminski visited famous and little-known restaurants throughout France, demonstrating an educated palate and a pleasant demeanor that has made him a welcome patron. He appreciates good food and the hard work that goes into producing it.
In Loiseau’s case, the hard work began with an apprenticeship arranged by his father in 1968, when the boy was seventeen years old. In the kitchen of the Troisgros brothers, Jean-Baptiste and Pierre, he spent twelve-hour days doing what every beginning kitchen apprentice does: hauling coal from the cellar, washing counter tops and ovens, and scrubbing the firebox with a wire bush, in addition to chopping vegetables and, after months of training, killing frogs by swinging their heads against the edge of a work table. Only fifteen days after Loiseau went to work at Les Frères Troisgros, the restaurant was awarded a third Michelin star, the highest award for cuisine in France. It was the beginning of Loiseau’s dream of one day running a three-star restaurant himself.
To help his readers understand the significance of this dreamand the boldness of itChelminski pauses for a history of Le Guide Michelin, the guidebook that rates French restaurants according to a strict and mysterious system of secret inspectors and hidden criteria. Long recognized as the indisputable scorekeeper of French haute cuisine, the Michelin Guide began in 1900 as a simple listing of names and addresses of places motorists might like to visit. Issued by the Michelin tire company, the goal of the guide was to encourage people to drive their newfangled automobiles more frequently, so they would need more tires. Restaurants a few hours away from Paris received special attention, because people out for a day of recreational driving needed good, reliable food to break up their trips. In 1933, the guide began rating restaurants according to their quality, awarding two stars to places with “excellent cooking, worth a detour,” and three stars to those with “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” Only a few restaurants were deemed worthy of three stars (though Michelin has always denied having a set limit); after Loiseau’s death there were only twenty-four three-star chefs in all of France.
To be worthy of three stars, a restaurant must be nearly perfect in every detail: setting, service, atmosphere, china, silverware, presentation, and especially the food. Chelminski clearly understands and delights in food. He devotes paragraph after paragraph to describing complex and expensive dishes, and his prose is nowhere more elevated and yet whimsical than when he is praising haute cuisine. One sentence, from his tale of Loiseau’s spiritual grandfather, Fernand Point, will suffice to demonstrate this aspect of Chelminski’s style:Point was perfectly capable of strutting his stuff with showpieces like turbot à l’amiral, which required two sauces, one based on white wine and the other on red, or the even more complex filets de sole Brillat-Savarin, a creamy lobster mousse jacketed in sliced truffles, surrounded by...
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