Ten years after the suicide of renowned chef Bernard Loiseau, speculation has ramped up in the French media that the Michelin Guide may have covered up its role in the affair. Though the guide has long denied allegations that it was threatening to pull one of Loiseau's three Michelin stars, this week French newspaper L'Express published some previously unseen documents that suggest a Michelin official did indeed meet with the chef to discuss his concerns about the "lack of soul" at Le Relais Bernard Loiseau.
L'Express obtained a note purportedly written by Derek Brown, then the British head of the red guide, describing a meeting with Loiseau not long before his death. Brown notes that it was Loiseau's first visit in three years and that they "talked a lot about his [Loiseau's] philosophy." Then Brown writes, "I talked of our concerns, irregularity, lack of soul, of character recent in his cuisine and the letters that are very mixed in terms of quality. Visibly 'shocked,' he took me seriously. We'll see."
L'Express also published a note that Loiseau's wife, Dominique Loiseau, apparently wrote to Brown thanking him for the meeting and explaining that the chef had been closely reviewing the menu with his staff ever since. She writes, "We have well understood your warning and from now on everything is being done in the kitchen to turn things around as quickly as possible." But just three months later, Loiseau shot himself in the head.
As the lengthy L'Express piece describes, a shocked food world traded speculation and accusations as to who or what had pushed Loiseau to kill himself. His wife explains that Loiseau was bipolar and manic-depressive, and a biography written about the chef makes it clear that there were numerous factors that could have played a role in his suicide. The Gault & Millau guide got some flack for having recently docked points from the restaurant, while French critic François Simon bore the brunt of it for reporting rumors that Michelin was threatening the Burgundy-based restaurant — apparently the chef was in debt and worried that the loss of a Michelin star would cost him 40 percent of his business.
At the time, Michelin denied the rumors that it had threatened Loiseau, and still denies it today. Brown told L'Express in an interview last week, "We never had any deep problem with Bernard Loiseau, just some details like the temperature of a soup." Indeed, Le Relais Bernard Loiseau still has its three stars. For his part, Simon declared his vindication to the paper, saying, "They wanted to pass me off as a murderer. And Michelin...was cleared of all responsibility."
UPDATE 01/25/2013: A reader points out to Eater that this is not the first time the Michelin documents have been brought to light. In a 2009 book Au Revoir to All That, writer Michael Steinberger wrote about both Brown's notes following his meeting with Loiseau, as well as the letter Dominique Loiseau wrote to him in response. In the wake of the book's publication, French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur also ran a piece mentioning the Michelin documents.