“If I lose my third star, I’ll kill myself.” (Bernard Loiseau)
La Route des Vacances – from Paris to the Midi via Burgundy and the Rhône Valley – was also ‘la Route qui fait Recette’, studded by les phares of French gastronomy: the great Point at Vienne; Pic at Valence; Alexandre Dumaine at Saulieu. In Lyon there was la Mère Brazier, the Bressane farm girl who won six Michelin stars for her two restaurants and gave the young Paul Bocuse his first apprentissage – washing up, ironing and milking.
At eighty something, the amazing Bocuse remains enthroned beside the Saône at Collonges, still turning out his famous truffle soup VGE – created for President Giscard at the Elysée Palace in 1975 – and glaring out from the posters like a Russian head of state at a Moscow parade. Is he still alive? Would they tell us, if he wasn’t? The Troisgros brothers pitched camp on the N7 at Roanne and the family is still there, defying the motorway and recently celebrating forty uninterrupted years of three Michelin stars, a record only Bocuse can trump. Pic’s grand daughter Anne Sophie flies the family flag at Valence and was recently crowned the world’s top woman chef. That sounds a slightly patronising title for the 21st century, but France does lag on these issues. (Note: since this was written, Bocuse has died and the Troisgros have moved to an out-of-town location near Roanne).
Of all the phares, Troisgros is the only one to have kept the top mark in Michelin’s rival the Gault-Millau, whose founder Henri Gault claimed to have invented la nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s. He certainly identified it, and no chef was more closely associated with the new wave than Bernard Loiseau.
Loiseau was a junior at Troisgros in Roanne when the brothers won their three stars in 1968. Moving to Paris, he pioneered lighter cuisine, enjoyed media darling status and in 1975 took over from Dumaine at Saulieu, where he fulfilled his life’s ambition with the achievement of three stars in 1991.
Gault-Millau is often accused of playing fast and loose with its ratings, lionising chefs and taking them down for the sake of publicity. The august Michelin takes longer to move. The third Michelin star is the supreme accolade, at which ambitious chefs set their lance. And then ….. ?
“If I ever lose my third star, I’ll kill myself,” Loiseau once told Jacques Lameloise, another three-star chef in Burgundy. In February 2003 he did exactly that, turning his hunting rifle on himself when le Figaro ran an article suggesting his third star was under threat. Paul Bocuse was not in doubt: Gault-Millau killed Loiseau, he said. The guide had already downgraded La Cote d’Or from 19 to 17 out of 20.
Make no mistake, these ratings matter. It is not just that the top chefs are the world’s most unsparing and obsessive perfectionists, although without that quality they would not be what they are. Losing a star, especially the third star, is a huge financial setback, like relegation from the Premier League or not qualifying for Europe. The Bernard Loiseau brand lives on at La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, and kept its three stars until 2016.
PS See an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph in Jan 2013, suggesting Michelin may have had more to do with the Loiseau affair than was previously thought. One of the most surprising revelations is that meetings between chefs and the Michelin politburo ‘happen all the time’.
Article in L’Express on the same subject
The Daily Telegraph’s obituary of Loiseau from Feb 2003
The Guardian’s obituary of Paul Bocuse who died in January 2018