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When food is a matter of life & death


Gêrard Depardieu (left) played François Vatel in the 2000 Roland Jaffe film, Vatel


On February 24, 2002, Bernard Loiseau, one of France’s finest chefs, killed himself with his hunting rifle at his home, located a stone’s throw away from his much-acclaimed restaurant, La Côte-d’Or , in Saulieu, a village in Burgundy. Loiseau had sunk into a deep depression when the Gault Millau, the country’s second most influential restaurant guide, downgraded his rating from 19 out of 20 to 17. He then feared that he would face a worse humiliation when the all-powerful Michelin Guide, that has made and unmade the fortunes and reputations of chefs and restaurants since the early 1920s, would follow suit.

Rumours to the effect that he would lose one of the three stars that had been conferred on his restaurant in 1991 were rife in the media. Four days before the Michelin Guide published its annual ratings , Loiseau chose to take the extreme step. In a tragic twist of irony, however, the Côte-d’Or retained its three-star status.

For days on end, the French mourned Loiseau’s death as the loss of a national icon. They paid homage to him with the same sort of fervour and adulation they reserve for their most distinguished thinkers and writers, artists and statesmen. They extolled his contribution to safeguarding with uncommon flair one of the key elements of French cultural identity viz. its gastronomy. And they understood perfectly well the sense of shame that had overpowered the perfectionist when his skills were questioned by the undisputed arbiters of culinary excellence.

Many commentators, especially in Britain, wondered why Loiseau had not rubbished the ratings and returned the stars to carry on with his business. It is The Independent of London that placed the suicide in perspective when it said: “The Michelin-Gault Millau standard was born in France, has existed for centuries and will always belong to that place where gastronomy is a matter of life and death.”

The attention the French lavished on Loiseau indeed has its roots deep in history . On Thursday, April 23, 1669, Francois Vatel, the maitre-d’hôtel at the Prince de Condé’s château in Chantilly, had to prepare a banquet for a special guest: Louis IV. The feast left the king and his courtiers charmed beyond measure. Some described it as a “fairy tale come true” while many others were at a loss for words to react to the culinary excess and refinement.

For Vatel, however, the experience was a nightmare. He had prepared a banquet for 25 tables but the number of guests who turned up required last-minute arrangements to set up 35 extra ones. Consequently, some of the most exquisite dishes could not be served at the last two tables. The Prince announced that the banquet was flawless but such praise mattered little to Vatel. He, like Bernard Loiseau, went into a depression and muttered again and again that he had lost his honour and that he would not be able to survive the humiliation.

The next day was a Friday which in Catholic France meant that no meat dishes could be laid on the table. Accordingly, Vatel used his vast network of suppliers at various sea-ports to supply him with the necessary quantities of fish and seafood. The first runner arrived at the Chantilly château at the crack of dawn with only a small amount of seafood. Vatel assumed that this supply had come from only one seaport and that other supplies would follow .

The runner however insisted that no more seafood should be expected. But hours later the supplies did start arriving from the other ports. The kitchen staff went to Vatel’s chamber to announce the good news. They found him dead in a pool of blood. He had driven his sword through his heart. No one mentioned the suicide. It came to be known much later when the Marquise de Sevigné reported it in two exquisitely composed letters addressed to a friend. She, however, said, contrary to what later research showed, that the suicide happened after Thursday’s banquet.


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