One of France’s greatest chefs has shot himself with his own hunting rifle. And most people seem to think that Bernard Loiseau did this because of being rated down this year by an important restaurant guide. This is similar to how, a couple of centuries ago, Keats’s early death was believed to have been brought on by the cruelty of his reviewers. Shelley wrote a beautiful elegy to this effect. But the very much less earnest and more patrician Lord Byron described, with heartless ease, the muddle of arrogance and fragility that often makes up the Genius in the Marketplace: “Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate;/ ‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,/ Should let itself be snuff’d out by an article.”
Loiseau had maintained the honour of a Michelin three star for more than a decade, and with that, one of the most exclusive restaurant-spas in Burgundy. He was not only an excellent cook, but also a gastronomic philosopher who brought to his craft the simplicity, refinement as well as the egotism of a classical artist — for which François Mitterand appointed him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. So when the almighty GaultMillau marked him down from 19 to 17 (out of 20) this year, and marked another young chef up to full score, Loiseau must have been made acutely aware of the market-driven arbitrariness of fame. Guide-books often make such whimsical judgments to boost their own sales, which then directly affect the image, and turnover, of the judged. From the receiving end of such outrageous verdicts, the market then appears to be ruled by the vulgar, the ignorant and the greedy, a most high art consumed by a public that values lists and ratings more than the distinction of a particular creator. Loiseau’s colleagues had begun to notice how the anxiety of keeping the three Michelin stars would often outweigh his sense of fulfilment from cooking for those who genuinely loved and understood his food. Moreover, the reins of this anxiety were held by people who knew far less about good food than the cuisinier himself. This is what must have been most infuriating, and humiliating. The higher arts — fiction, music, painting and sculpture — could be made or marred by the vagaries of irresponsible trend-setting, as much as the more obviously “market-savvy” ones of cinema, fashion and haute cuisine.
But artists have been made of more robust mettle than Loiseau. Another Chevalier of the Légion closer home, Satyajit Ray, was also notoriously sensitive and unforgiving when it came to adverse criticism, beaming his leonine disdain sometimes on the most undeserving and insignificant of critics. Ingmar Bergman once tried to hit one of his most damaging critics. But he quickly sat down on the floor among some music stands, and Bergman missed him. Bergman was fined 5,000 kronor, “but considered it worth the money”. Many years later, he saw the man again in a state of pathetic ruin, and thought, “There goes a Deadly Enemy. He should be destroyed.” Byron did it differently. He was once knocked down by a savage review. But he got up again — and “instead of bursting a blood-vessel…drank three bottles of claret and began an answer”.