Vatel v. Loiseau: Whose Suicide Was More Justifiable?

Bernard Loiseau.jpg
Bernard Loiseau sez: "This is how many times Vatel stabbed himself! I wish I could be as hard- core. I'll never be as good as him!"
French cuisine is famous for its rigorous adherence to form and a dogma so strict it makes Catholic doctrine look like a food fight at a 3-year- old's birthday party. Traditional French cooking--la grande cuisine--as codified by August Escoffier in his Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, requires a set of complicated rules, and made use of heavy sauces that effectively obscured the flavor of the meat beneath, which was often overcooked.

Beginning in the 1960's a group of French chefs, led by Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, Michel Guerard and others, rejected Escoffier's pompous and dated approach and revolutionized cooking with their nouvelle cuisine. Nouvelle cuisine emphasized fresh ingredients, lighter sauces, and gentler cooking in order to emphasize the taste of the everything. But ultimately, they just ended up instituting their own retarded rules and the system became just as top- heavy and fussy as what they'd wanted to replace. They basically replaced something dumb with something just as fucking dumb, like trading a used tampon for a bowl of puke. If you prefer a more high- minded analogy, think of the avant garde rebels of nouvelle cuisine as the pigs in Animal Farm.

At any rate, both la grande cuisine AND nouvelle cuisine required a level of perfectionism capable of driving men mad. Which is exactly what happened to both Francois Vatel and Bernard Loiseau, two French chefs who lost their respective shits and killed themselves. But which chef deserved to die more?

Francois Vatel wasn't actually a chef, so he should probably be killed just for that. Vatel was the Maitre d'Hotel for Louis II, the Prince de Conde. He was more of a butler than a chef; he handled logistics and presentation, but did very little cooking. He did, however, invent the recipe for Chantilly cream.

Vatel was given very little time to plan a huge fucking dinner. King Louis XIV was visiting the Prince de Conde's court, along with an entourage of 200, and Vatel was charged with staging a three-day-long feast for all of these motherfuckers. The party turned out to be a flop: Vatel hadn't slept for days, a fancy fireworks show he ordered was invisible due to fog, and more people showed up than were expected. Then, when a shipment of fresh fish that Vatel ordered failed to show up on time, the distraught Maitre'd ran up to his room, stuck his sword in the door jamb so that the blade stuck out, and impaled himself on it. Three times. DAMN, dude.

Meanwhile, Bernard Loiseau was a driven perfectionist and poster boy for nouvelle cuisine. Loiseau sought lighter sauces and simpler presentations than his fellow chefs. Eventually he became the first chef to make his restaurant a publicly-traded company. In 1991, Loiseau's restaurant, La Cote D'Or, gained its third Michelin star, which propelled Loiseau to stardom. Unfortunately, by the late 1990's consumers had grown tired of nouvelle cuisine, mostly because by that time they just wanted to eat handfuls of bacon and nothing else.

Clearly, both of these chumps had problems, but which one was right to kill himself? Vatel overreacted to the situation, but the man was tightly wound to begin with. Plus he was under enormous pressure to impress the King, but without impressing him too much: Vatel's former boss Nicolas Fouquet had been thrown into prison by Louis for building a palace for himself that was, apparently, too opulent. That, and all of the rampant corruption and shoddy bookkeeping that Fouquet had been doing as Louis' Finance Minister. So no pressure there.

Loiseau, too, was under pressure. He'd recently completed $10 million renovations to La Cote D'Or. He'd also recently lost points in the 2003 edition of the GaultMillau guide, being demoted from 19 to 17 points out of 20. Plus, by the early part of this century, nouvelle cuisine was old news; Asian fusion had been sweeping France since the mid 1990's. "Asian fusion?" the incredulous reader might ask, "really?" The answer is yes: a pile of cold buckwheat noodles with a slice of seared Ahi and some sesame seeds might seem like the kind of thing lazy wine bars use to pad their menus, but 20 years ago that shit was revolutionary. Strange things were popular in the 1990's, if you recall, and while in 2010 fusion might seem like the Dave Matthews Band of food, back then it was hot shit, just like the Dave Matthews Band of music.

Plus, nouvelle cuisine's philosophy of using fresh ingredients had been co-opted by chefs who not only used the freshest ingredients, but ALSO used pounds of bacon in everything. Nouvelle cuisine was suffering a PR problem because in the minds of yokels everywhere it stood for expensive, microscopic portions and weak sauce. Here I mean it was LITERALLY weak sauce, and not just a schoolyard taunt: Loiseau based his sauces in water, rather than using the traditional butter and cream.

And then there was Ferran Adria. Loiseau couldn't understand how a Spaniard could be a famous chef. He also couldn't grasp the concepts of molecular gastronomy, which isn't necessarily a fault, since most people don't want to pay $200 for foam anyway. But he failed to even respond to molecular gastronomy. At the very least, he should've tried to co-opt it the way his own style had been diluted and disseminated.

Finally, there's Loiseau's one lasting innovation: the corporatization of fine dining. If you've ever eaten a shitty breakfast pizza at a Wolfgang Puck's in an airport at 6 am, you can thank Loiseau for that. Sure, he was making tons of money, but Loiseau was overexposed, with all of his company's products being shilled on TV. He was overworked, and he thought (incorrectly) that he was going to lose one of his three coveted Michelin stars. So he locked himself in his room and shot himself in the face.

Had he just hung in there, he could've retired, been a judge of Top Chef, raked in his loads of cash from his shitty line of soups, and maybe hosted a PBS cooking show. Instead he pussed out. If his Michelin ranking was causing him stress, he should've just opted out and returned the stars, like Marco Pierre White.

Who wins? Obviously, the public lost in both cases, but Loiseau clearly had bigger problems than Vatel. Vatel just seems like an overwhelmed douche. Plus his greatest creation, Chantilly Cream, is now just redneck shorthand for "something fancy." Besides, in the 1600's life expectancy was about 35, so at 45 years old, Vatel was over the hill.

In conclusion, Loiseau had more to live for than Vatel. If he was stressed he could have retired and enjoyed all this modern technology that didn't exist in Vatel's day, like the Playstation. So if anyone should have killed himself, I'm going to have to say it was Vatel.

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