Monday, June 18, 2007

The Perfectionist

The Perfectionist, by Rudolph Chelminski (ISBN 1592402046)

I'd rate this book a 6.85/10 (is there a reason for the decimal? Does there need to be?).

This is a very clear, captivating biography of Bernard Loiseau, one of the star-crossed super-chefs of French cuisine. Steeped in Michelin history and resplendent with a cast of high-powered chefs in the culinary environment of Les Trentes Glorieuses, this book begins with his modest childhood and culminates in his suicide in 2003.

One of the disturbing factors of this book is his untreated bipolar disorder. Always on the up, uber-friendly, smile til you drop, Bernard also faced occasional black lows where he was practically inconsolable. Medication made him feel like his edge was gone. He didn't feel he could go to a doctor because of the stigma he felt was attached. He suffered enormous self-esteem issues, but overcompensated for this by exalting himself in the eyes of others, boasting constantly that his food was the best.

Added to that was the stress of the Michelin stars - always striving for that elusive third star, and then once achieved, the constant gnawing worry that it would be taken away. I've read elsewhere as well how stressful this becomes, how easy it is to go out of business once stars are rescinded (an automatic drop of about 40-60% of clientele per star), and the overdrive that constantly fuels the chefs.

It's fascinating to me that in an industry that's about pure luxury (at the 3-star level you can easily drop a few hundred dollars, if not more, for dinner), the chefs who create these masterpieces drive themselves towards perfection such that they are not able to enjoy living life in the same way. Bernard seems to be more driven than most, not missing even one food service, despite traveling the country to promote his restaurant. He put so much stress on the image presented that he didn't leave himself time to just stop and enjoy life - vacation, spending time with family, all that took a second spot to the restaurant. Though, much the same can be said of many driven business men who barely see their families - in this case it's that much more tragic for while he's seeking happiness in his success, he won't let himself be happy that he's achieved the level he has.

And all that fame he was seeking does actually turn out to be fleeting - in the 80s, snap bracelets and leg warmers were all the rage (and after that plaid shirts and the grunge look), and at that time, I'll bet you that the producers of those products thought they hit the money spot, the champagne uncorked and the money rolling in from all side. But as with anything, whether it be cooking to clothing to music, what's new becomes old-fashioned and yesterday's trend-setters become tomorrow's history.

I enjoyed reading this book. I learned a great deal about the culinary industry in France, about the Michelin and Gault-Millau guides, and the ephemeral fame to be had. It was a bit of a slow read, not one of those books that I'd be thinking about reading all day and can't wait to get my hands on. But then, it's not supposed to be.

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