The Michelin Guide is in hot water after being accused of hiding its role in the suicide of one of France’s greatest chefs, Bernard Loiseau.
Loiseau was terrified of losing his third Michelin star when he shot himself in the mouth at his home near La Côte d’Or, his gastronomic temple in Burgundy, France, in February 2003. A week before, Michelin's rival the GaultMillau had reduced his rating from 19 to 17 out of 20.
His friend, three-star chef Jacques Lameloise, recounted how Loiseau - whose cuisine eschewed cream, butter, flour and fat, but remained quintessentially French; his signature dish being frogs' legs and garlic purée on a bed of parsley sauce - had told him how much his Michelin rating meant: "He said, 'If I lose a star, I'll kill myself.'"
Loiseau’s death shocked the culinary world and led to the critics themselves facing criticism. They were accused of exercising too much power, toying with the restaurants they assess, and ultimately pushing Loiseau over the edge.
Amid the backlash, the tyre guide kept its head down and left Le Figaro’s restaurant critic Francoise Simon to be a “scapegoat” for his death. He had published an article shortly before Loiseau’s suicide citing Michelin sources as warning his third star was "legitimately under threat".
Michelin denied ever threatening to withdraw a star, which Loiseau’s restaurant ended up keeping. But previously unseen documents suggest Michelin had told him it had serious reservations about his restaurant four months before he shot himself.
Yesterday, L’Express magazine published a confidential note written by the guide’s then British head, Derek Brown, that appears to contradict Michelin’s version of events.
Minutes from his November 2002 meeting with Loiseau and his wife Dominique at his head office recount how Brown left them with little doubt that a star was under threat, and even mentions how shocked the 52-year-old chef was by the news.
“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,” Brown wrote. “Visibly ‘shocked’, [Loiseau] took me seriously. We’ll see.”
Two days later, Mrs Loiseau sent a deeply apologetic letter, promising to get their cuisine “back on track”. Her husband - who she says was a manic depressive “capable of great moments of euphoria and periods of deep anxiety” - apparently never recovered.
Simon said yesterday he felt vindicated because he had merely reported on Michelin’s 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.”
Brown insisted this week: “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.”