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Did fear of losing success drive top French chef to commit suicide?

Benoit Violier, the chef of the "world's best restaurant" whose apparent suicide has thrown a spotlight on the intense pressures facing top cooks, worried that his success would not last, reports said Tuesday.

Did fear of losing success drive top French chef to commit suicide?
Benoit Violier. Photo: AFP
In his last interview – given only four days before he was found dead with his hunting rifle by his side at his home near Lausanne in Switzerland – Violier appeared in good spirits.
   
But he told the French daily Liberation that having three Michelin stars and being named as the best in the world in December by the La Liste classification did not matter to him.
   
“It's all about clients coming back,” he said in the interview published Tuesday.
   
“I hope that it lasts. With 54 employees you have only three months' grace,” he said, referring to the waiting list for a table at his Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in the village of Crissier.
   
“You have always to remain concentrated…
   
“You know people don't come here for the sea views,” Violier joked, referring to his restaurant's less than glamorous setting in a semi-industrial zone near a motorway exit.
 
Disdain for star system 
 
He claimed never to have heard of La Liste – set up by the French department of foreign affairs as a counterweight to the British-based World's 50 Best Restaurants guide – until AFP contacted him to tell him he that was top of their ranking.
   
“I didn't want to go to the prize-giving ceremony, I had planned to change my identity card that day,” he told the daily.
   
Such was his personal disdain for awards and the star system around which the world of haute cuisine revolves, that he made little play of his victories on his restaurant's website.
   
Instead he preferred to highlight the triumphs of his staff, telling Liberation that “in a year and a half they entered 13 competitions and won them all.”
   
Friends and colleagues said Violier may have been affected by the sudden death six months ago of his mentor Philippe Rochat, whom he succeeded at Crissier in 2012.
   
Unlike the top French chef Bernard Loiseau, who killed himself in 2003 after losing a star, Violier appeared to have no financial problems and owned his own restaurant.
   
Business was brisk, with former Spanish king Juan Carlos and ex-German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder among those drawn to sample his signature game and seafood dishes such as turbot with Maltese oranges.
 
Passion for hunting 
 
The 44-year-old, whose life-long passion for hunting had led him to write a 1,000-page encyclopaedia of European game birds, said he was even considering putting his rifle away and taking up photography.
   
The book's editor Pierre-Marcel Favre told the paper that “no one understands” why he killed himself.
   
“He was in control, relaxed, serious, had lots of ongoing projects,” he added, doubting that the shooting was an accident.
   
The son of winemakers from western France, he narrowly escaped death as a child when a bottle of sparkling wine blew up in his face.
   
Violier, who had a 12-year-old son and ran the restaurant with his wife, Brigitte, said he was also toying with the idea of expanding his cookery courses.
   
“The starification of our profession has gone too far. Television has made kids believe that in three months you can be a star. But to be a cook it takes a whole lifetime,” he said.
   
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said late Monday that his death was a major loss for the country.
   
“We lose with Benoit Violier an eminent ambassador for French taste and know-how,” he said.
   
Fellow chef Christian Le Squer, awarded a third Michelin star earlier Monday for his restaurant in Paris' George V hotel, said he was in no mood to celebrate.
   
“The whole gastronomic world is in tears because we lost a great colleague and friend,” he said.

RESTAURANTS

Michelin unveils Covid-era France picks despite criticism

The Michelin Guide reveals Monday its annual pick of France's top restaurants despite criticism over its decision to hold the awards while establishments remain closed in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Michelin unveils Covid-era France picks despite criticism
Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Photo: AFP

Three-star chefs can rest easy, however, after Michelin said none will be demoted as the health crisis rages.

The industry bible's boss Gwendal Poullennec defended inspections that led to 57 new stars overall, even though restaurants remain shuttered after lockdowns imposed last spring and again since October.

“It's an important decision to support the industry, despite the current situation and perhaps even because of the situation,” Poullennec told AFP.

“All the establishments that have kept their star this year or won one are restaurants that fully deserve it,” he said.

READ MORE: Michelin calls off its 2021 France ceremony, but insists there will still be a guide

Michelin has drawn fire for bestowing its verdicts as chefs rack up losses while adapting their menus for takeaway or deliveries — and food fans have little chance of booking tables anytime soon, with or without face masks.

The rival Best 50 list, based in Britain, cancelled its 2020 ranking last year, while France's La Liste said this month that instead of rankings it would honour innovative chefs who have persevered amid the pandemic.

Michelin called off the lavish gala ceremony that was to be held in Cognac, southwest France – the first time outside Paris – and instead will announce the 2021 winners in a YouTube broadcast from the Eiffel Tower.

'Consistent quality'

But Poullennec said all three-star restaurants will keep their stars – France including Monaco counts 29 – while the handful of demotions will affect only restaurants that have closed or changed their dining concept.

He insisted that inspectors worked double duty and even cancelled their sacrosanct summer holidays to eat and drink as much as possible when restaurants were allowed to open under strict virus restrictions between France's lockdowns.

Michelin also brought in inspectors from elsewhere in Europe and even Asia to back up the French team.

“This selection has been made with the same serious attention, and inspectors were able to judge as many meals as the previous year,” he said.

“Despite the difficulties, chefs have risen to the occasion and maintained consistent quality, at times even succeeding in making further progress,” he added.

Poullennec, who took over the guide in 2018, has overseen several choices that have raised eyebrows among chefs and foodies alike.

Last year Michelin shocked industry insiders by downgrading the Auberge du Pont de Collonges — the oldest three-starred restaurant in the world — after the death of its legendary chef Paul Bocuse.

And in January 2019, Marc Veyrat became the first chef to sue the famous red guidebook after it withdrew the third star for his French Alps restaurant La Maison des Bois just a year after it was awarded.

Veyrat, who lost his case, has said he never wants to see a Michelin inspector in any of his restaurants ever again.

 

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