The Suicidal Chef Who Inspired ‘Ratatouille’

“He’s dying to become a chef.” —Tagline from “Ratatouille” (2007)

In A Nutshell

Before his death in 2003, Bernard Loiseau was the most famous chef alive in France. The man wowed critics and customers alike with his pricey creations and his impressive three-star restaurant, La Cote d’Or. But when the Michelin Guide threatened to remove one of his stars, Loiseau started to break under all the pressure.

The Whole Bushel

Unless you’re a soulless, coldhearted cynic, chances are good you loved Pixar’s Ratatouille. It’s a beautiful film with wonderful characters and, perhaps most importantly, a lot of gorgeous food. Even real-life French chefs were impressed with this Hollywood flick, commenting on how the film perfectly captured life inside a high-class kitchen. That’s because the folks at Pixar spent a lot of time in real Parisian restaurants, interviewing chefs and recording the sights and sounds of kitchens.

However, living chefs weren’t the only ones to inspire Pixar. According to The Daily Beast, the character of Gusteau—the overweight chef who dies of sadness after losing a Michelin star only to return as Remy the rat’s imaginary friend—was based on a real-life person, a man named Bernard Loiseau. Up until 2003, Loiseau was the most famous chef in France. According to one magazine, 9 out of 10 Frenchmen could recognize Loiseau as easily as they could an A-list movie star.

Loiseau was a major innovator of nouvelle cuisine, a movement that emphasized artistic presentation, fresh ingredients, lighter foods, and the chef as culinary auteur. For example, instead of deep-frying frog legs in copious amounts of butter (the traditional method), Loiseau served them lightly fried, along with garlic and parsley purees. And evidently it was so good that Robert De Niro occasionally stopped by (via helicopter) for a bite.

In addition to creating his own frozen food products, becoming a TV star, and writing a bunch of cookbooks, Loiseau joined the pantheon of gastronomic gods in 1991 by earning three Michelin stars for his Burgundy restaurant, La Cote d’Or. Designed like a country manor, the restaurant (complete with hotel and gift shop) served delectable dishes that usually ran at $240–340 per couple . . . without wine. Behind the scenes, Loiseau encouraged his staff with chants of “you’re the best,” but lurking beneath that white apron was a troubled and paranoid man.

Loiseau was absolutely obsessed with maintaining his three stars. Always worried a Michelin judge was prowling around the premises, Loiseau examined every dish, making sure everything was just right. If not, it went straight into the garbage. Unfortunately, Loiseau had every reason to be worried. The loss of one star could cut into his business by 40 percent. Even worse, French cooking was evolving, and many critics thought Loiseau’s creations, while tasty, were becoming boring.

Things finally ended when Loiseau learned the Michelin Guide was going to remove a star. Already struggling with manic depression, Loiseau couldn’t handle any more pressure. On February 2003, the great chef left his restaurant, went home, and committed suicide with a hunting rifle.

After his death, there was a huge outcry against Michelin, although the organization initially denied any intention of downgrading Loiseau’s restaurant. However, in 2013, the French magazine L’Express revealed documents indicating Michelin was totally intending on stripping Loiseau of one of his stars. The cover-up was finally exposed, and the world now understood the pressures of being a great cook. Sadly, it was too late for Loiseau.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Washington Post: A Taste of Whimsy Wows the French
The Daily Beast: The Death of Star Chef Bernard Loiseau
The Telegraph: Michelin guide ‘covered up criticism of top French suicide chef’
The New Yorker: Death Of A Chef