Eighty members of the restaurant community gathered on April 6 at restaurant Fleur de Lys in San Francisco to honor the memory of French chef Bernard Loiseau. World-class chefs shared kitchen space, recipes and stories of the Michelin three-star chef who committed suicide in February at the age of 52.
Loiseau's widow, Dominique Loiseau, came from France to attend the event. "I had the opportunity to be married to one of the greatest chefs of the 20th century," she said, addressing the crowd. "Was it easy? No. Was it incredible? Yes."
Dominique said Loiseau had decided when he was only 15 years old that he would have a three-star establishment one day. He became one of the country's most important chefs, revolutionary for taking out the butter, cream, flour and sugar from rich, classic French food. He opted instead for cooking with natural juices -- for example, thickening a sauce with carrot puree. La Côte d'Or, Loiseau's restaurant and hotel in the Burgundy town of Saulieu, is one of only 25 restaurants in France to hold the Michelin guide's coveted three stars.
Over the years, Loiseau expanded his empire to include three restaurants in Paris, gourmet shops, books and even a line of vacuum-packed foods and sauces. He was the first chef to list his company on the French stock exchange, and his enthusiasm and energetic smile made him popular for television appearances.
Loiseau's dedication and contributions were celebrated at the tribute dinner, which was organized by a longtime friend, California attorney William Boyd, and Champagne Perrier-Jouët CEO Jean-Marie Barillère. The evening transformed Fleur de Lys into a Loiseau memorial, with framed pictures of Loiseau on every table. San Francisco chefs Bernard Chirent of the Fairmont Hotel, Gary Danko, Roland Passot of La Folie and Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys prepared hors d'oeuvres and a five-course meal for guests, which included other big-name chefs such as Julian Serrano, Michael Mina and George Morrone. "Too many cooks in the kitchen," joked Chirent before the meal was served, as he squeezed passed onlookers who greeted each other with hugs and hearty handshakes.
Roland Passot prepared Loiseau's most famous dish: frogs' legs. Loiseau had a theory that there should be no more than three flavors in a dish for it to be remembered. Loiseau's frogs' legs are fried quickly and the excess oil removed, then dragged through a mound of garlic puree and a simple parsley coulis, allowing the flavors to combine. "Beautiful," whispered chef Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry, as he took in the dish.
When asked about all the speculation and rumor surrounding her husband's death, Dominique told Wine Spectator that Loiseau would often complain about how tired he was. "He was fragile. His life was the hotel," she explained. In the 14 years they were together, they only took seven vacations, never for more than four days at a time. "He loved cooking more than anything in the world," she said.
Loiseau had told Dominique that he was concerned about the future of cuisine, and his place in it. Over the past eight months, she said he was shutting down, "disconnecting with reality."
"In his struggles, even the littlest negative remark upset him deeply," Dominique said. But Loiseau was still energetic with his work and inspiring to his staff. "He gave off something so powerful, maybe he gave too much," she suggested.
It was this charisma that former employees, friends and colleagues remembered. Thomas Keller spoke of Loiseau's influence on him by saying, "When I try to realize how long I knew him . . . I realize I only met him in 1996. But it seems I've known him all of my cooking career, which seems to be all of my life."
The Loiseau Group will continue where Loiseau left off. Dominique was appointed president the day after her husband's funeral. At La Cote d'Or, Patrick Bertron, who worked with Loiseau for 20 years, will take over as head chef. The menu will continue to honor Loiseau with his most important recipes, including the frogs' legs.
The response to Loiseau's death has been overwhelming to Dominique, who says she tried to respond personally to the thousands of letters and e-mails she received. Those in attendance -- who came from all over the world to commemorate her husband's death and the way he lived his life, with good food and Champagne -- touched the widow deeply. "I love Bernard," she told the crowd. "I love cuisine. I love France. I love America."
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