by Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2005)
I didn’t know Bernard Loiseau personally. I do know that he was a great chef. Like everyone, I was horrified that he killed himself. But am I shocked? No.
He epitomized the real haute cuisine chef: passionate, driven, a perfectionist, confident and wise-cracking with a sizable ego, someone to admire, yet racked with self doubt, and a selfless desire to please. The kind of person that is drawn to and succeeds in this profession is all these things, and often in conflict by nature. Given this and the difficult nature of the business, I find cracking easy enough to understand.
Ok, maybe he was bipolar, which implies a huge struggle in life no matter. But, my hunch is that many chefs are. I know the prototype and can see the potential consequences. He thrived on the satisfaction of meeting high standards and pleasing, but was torn by the pressures, both internal and external. So utterly seduced and driven by the ride to the height of French gastronomy, to be ultimately destroyed by it.. I can see it.
Mental illness aside (there is a huge grey area between sane and crazy anyway), I think that it is the dichonomy of a big ego and enormous self doubt that is the source of much strange behavior on the part of chefs. Add to that all the demands on a chef, and voilà, cocktail bomb. The arduous work, relentless pressure, attention to detail day in, day out, as well as the compassion, generous nature and people skills required, all exasperating the situation, eventually making an innately unstable person crack. It takes much introspection, self discipline and self help, not to mention a solid entourage to stay sane. It takes love from close ones who see straight, to help make the huge efforts necessary to keep it all in balance. And maybe some yoga; I hear it works wonders.
I have never been in the shoes of a Michelin star chef, but I can only imagine. The life of a wound up chef as myself, taken to the extreme. It can only lead to the brink of madness. Even if this life of hard work and intense pressure is partly self imposed, it's the name of the game, with always so much to do and improve, again and again. And so full of criticism, you can’t please everybody, and that’s difficult enough to accept for a chef. Then, in a moment of weakness, you let go for a minute, a less than snuff product makes it in the door, a plate goes out overcooked, and your pride is shot, a Michelin star is lost. A chef is only as good as his last dish. It shouldn’t mean a life, but in a world out of whack, it’s not surprising . Think of how many lives go into a Michelin star, which can be taken away in a heartbeat.
God bless his soul; well, you know what I mean. And bring on the yoga.