Three-star Burgundy chef Bernard Loiseau -- who built a culinary empire and became the first French chef to list his company on the French stock exchange -- was found dead at his home yesterday. Police believe that he committed suicide using his hunting rifle, according to authorities quoted in the French media. He was 52.
The rifle was recovered next to Loiseau's body at his home in Saulieu, in northwestern Burgundy, where his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, drew gourmets from around the world. An autopsy today was expected to confirm the suicide hypothesis.
News of Loiseau's death sent shock waves through France and the culinary world beyond. La Côte d'Or is closed through Friday, when the funeral is scheduled, and will reopen on Saturday for lunch, a spokeswoman said. "We are closed because we are really in shock," she said today. "The personnel are very affected, and we have problems handling the hotel and the restaurant."
Loiseau, who had apprenticed at Troisgros restaurant in Roanne from 1968 to 1971, when it earned three stars from the Michelin dining guide, bought his restaurant in 1982.
Global attention focused on the charismatic and outspoken chef after La Côte d'Or earned three stars from Michelin in 1991. He admitted to a maniacal drive to succeed that he likened to that of a world-class sportsman. The pressure to earn that third star, he said to me in a conversation in 1990, was like feeling the edge of a knife pressing against his throat.
Much like other Burgundy chefs -- such as Paul Bocuse and Georges Blanc -- Loiseau used his restaurant to expand his business. He became the first chef to list his company, Groupe Loiseau—Art de Vivre et Gastronomy, on the stock market in December 1998. In addition to Loiseau's three restaurants in Paris (Tante Louise, Tante Marguerite and Tante Jeanne), the group operates a culinary shop and produces a line of frozen foods and other products.
Groupe Loiseau announced that its different enterprises would continue to operate. But before the stock market opened today, trading of the company's stock was suspended until further notice, according to the daily Libération. The group reported 1.9 million euros in sales in 2001, but its stock had dropped in December and has fluctuated up-and-down since then.
Recently, when Gault-Millau released the 2003 edition of its French dining guide, it dropped its rating of La Côte d'Or from 19 to 17 points on its 20-point scale. Although Loiseau had kept his three-star rating in the 2003 Michelin guide, the media speculated that Gault-Millau's downgrading could have put downward pressure on the stock, and might have affected Loiseau.
French chef Paul Bocuse, a friend of Loiseau, attacked the gastronomic guide, charging that it "killed him," as reported in the French media.
But Jacques Lameloise, the three-star chef in the Burgundy town of Chagny, told Wine Spectator that Loiseau apparently didn't feel well, although he seemed fine when the two had dinner at La Côte d'Or three weeks ago and when the two friends spoke on the phone 10 days ago.
"He told me a review had criticized him, but I felt he was strong," said Lameloise. "Gault-Millau affected him, but behind his gesture there is a big depression and lots of fatigue. The guide was only the last straw. Personally, I can't understand his gesture. We chefs like life, so I put that on a big case of the blues."
The death was all the more shocking, his colleagues and employees said, because, with his tanned face and bright, white smile, Loiseau seemed the picture of the dynamic entrepreneur.
Loiseau is survived by his wife, Dominique, and three children.
"For our profession, it's a big loss," said Lameloise. "He was a passionate man who loved to seek out and serve the best possible ingredients. He was an example to the young. He started from nothing; many of us have families and we build from what they gave us. But Bernard did it all alone. He was a fighter."
Read more about Bernard Loiseau and La Côte d'Or:
Burgundy Chef Lists on the Stock Market
Rating the Michelin Three-Star Restaurants
The Stars of French Cuisine