Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski (New York: Gotham Books, 2005).

When an good man takes his own life before his allotted span, we, less good fellows, are puzzled. Simultaneously we are envious at the success and smug at the failure. Did he not realize that It's a Wonderful Life?

The death of the influential Michelin three-star chef Bernard Loiseau raises these emotions. Yet, perhaps these emotions and the explanation provided are the least compelling aspects of Rudolph Chelminski's The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, an account of Loiseau's rise and collapse. His story is that of bipolar disorder, what used to be described as manic-depression. Of course, not all who live with bipolar disorder take their own lives, but the story is commonplace. Bernard Loiseau, chef at the Burgundian restaurant Cote d'Or, was so fearful of being bypassed by his colleagues and losing his third Michelin star (neither implausible fears, according to Chelminski) that he took a shotgun one quiet February afternoon and ended his life. All rather mundane tabloid news. Same old, same old.

Far more interesting than the psychiatric work-up of Loiseau's problems are Chelminski's accounts of the network of French cuisine (and, not incidently, the role of Michelin and Gault-Millau guides) and the description of the ideologies of cuisine that bubbled and squeaked in the last third of Twentieth Century.

As The Perfectionist emphasizes, the world of French haute cuisine is a tight-knit community and also a field of intellectual engagement. Star-worthy chefs are not merely cooking, but they are partying and talking. In this the world of French cuisine differs from that in most American cities with New York the primary exception. The United States has very accomplished cooks, but the social networks are rather thin and with a few exceptions, such as Chicago's Cuisine Agape of Achatz, Cantu, and Bowles, the goal of chefs is "simply" to cook well.

Chelminski delineates the dense social networks that operate at the highest levels of French dining. Indeed, one of the turning points of Bernard Loiseau's career is the time he spent as an apprentice at Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne. There he met other ambitious young cooks, subsequently his friends and colleagues, and there too he gained the scorn of Jean Troisgros, whose contempt for his apprentice was to shape Loiseau's career. Troisgros aborted the opportunity for Loiseau to train with other renowned chefs, preventing him from acquiring the technical skills of a chef who passed from kitchen to kitchen in a slowly accelerating career arc. Yet despite this black mark, Loiseau persevered and with the good fortune of finding a mentor in Claude Verger, Bernard soon found himself chef at Cote d'Or in Saulieu.

The French culinary world is, as Chelminski pictures it, a small town - and in this it differs little from many other occupations. Cuisine is a borough of the village that Tom Wolfe describes as Cultureburg. The linkages of Loiseau with fellow chefs Paul Bocuse, Michel Bras, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Guerard, and Guy Savoy shaped who he was and how his reputation was established. At Bernard's funeral, Chelminski reports, he had an honor guard composed of all twenty-four of the country's three-star chefs. This is not merely a tribute to a friend, but a recognition that they constitute a very special club: a fraternity for those who have been hazed behind the ovens and been crowned.

Add to this social world, a penumbra of critics and serious diners. Of institutional significance, Michelin is the Sun, and Gault-Millau the Moon, but critics like François Simon of Le Figaro are stars as well. Add to this the interested and the passionate, let us call them The Steves (to honor M. Plotnicki and M. Shaw): who have done so much, from outside of the kitchen, to create a community of diners. When Bernard Loiseau shot himself, the bullet ricocheted throughout a community.

Networks must be meaningful for participants: the intellectual stuffing constitutes a theoretical Oreo. Chelminski effectively connects his luscious descriptions of dishes to the underlying debates over food preparation. He describes how Loiseau created his "la cuisine des essences" - the belief that the chef could commit to a purity of taste with few ingredients, profound tastes, and commit to a slimmed down classical (French) cuisine. Cuisine off steroids. Chelminski is impressive in describing how cooking is a stage of professional thought. He depicts the linkages between Nouvelle Cuisine, Cuisine Minceur, and Loiseau's own, odd Cuisine à L'Eau. And, given a public always looking for the "next new thing," we learn how Loiseau's Cuisine of Essences became eclipsed by Cuisine Tendance, the Franco-fusion. This description reminds diners forcefully that - at least in the higher reaches of cuisine - real tastes are being fought over. The goal is not only to create dishes that taste "good" in an idiosyncratic fashion, but to create dishes that - like Tom Wolfe's vision of modern art in The Painted Word - are theory on the plate. Perhaps instead of menus, the day will come that we will simply be given a pamphlet and the bill.

All of these themes are worthy topics; yet to reach them one must face down a fair number of writerly oddities. Chelminski, for instance, claims that Loiseau has created a "Maoist" cuisine. Huh? Of all the descriptions that might apply to a three-star chef, being called an Maoist is among the strangest: if this is a Great Leap Forward, let it be so. Other claims (that five of six French families have second homes (p. 12)) seem equally bizarre. At times, Chelminski can let his wit run amok, speculating that when, as an alter boy, Bernard needed a "vial of holy vinegar" to complement his holy oil, prefiguring a career of preparing salad dressings (p. 38), that there is no trade in which "Latin passions" run as high as in the kitchen (p. 60), or in his analogy of the Michelin guide to Chairman's Mao's little red book (p. 51) (Chelminski seems inordinately taken with this corpulent Commie). Add to this, Chelminski's undefended preferences (his pungent distaste for Mark Veyrat and Ferran Adria and other chefs who work outside of classical cuisine) and this book lards its considerable insight with just plain weirdness.

The Perfectionist is a work of an imperfectionist. There are bizarro moments and quirks that a sharp copy editor might have pruned. Still, to be imperfect is not to be worthless. Put aside the Grand Guignol of Bernard Loiseau's lurid death, and we are served a knowledgeable account of the linkages between men and their theories that will add to any diner's experience at the table. Dishy, indeed.

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