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The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine Hardcover – 13 May 2005

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham Books; Reprint edition (13 May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592401074
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592401079
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.1 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 321,858 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"No book will tell you more about the effort involved in producing the best food in the world. Anyone who reads it will talk about little else for days after" The Independent 'Chelminski cuts through the glitz and glamour of French cuisine to examine the pressure cooker atmosphere ... Makes Hell's Kitchen look like a picnic' Herald 'Chelminski is a brilliant guide to fame and fortune in the restaurant trade. In the kitchen and in the dining room, his knowledge can't be faulted' Daily Mail --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Rudolph Chelminski is an American writer and veteran foreign correspondent and lives in Paris. His articles have appeared in most major American magazines, and he is the author of five books, including The French At Table and the French bestseller Prisonier de Mao. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
On the Monday evening of February 24, 2003, a stupefying announcement broke into the 11 P.M. news bulletins throughout French radio and TV: Bernard Loiseau, chef and owner of the Cote d'Or restaurant in the Burgundy town of Saulieu, had been found dead in his home at age fifty-two, an apparent suicide. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By londonreader21 on 12 April 2006
Format: Paperback
I bought The Perfectionist unseen on the recommendation of a friend, slightly in two minds on account of the fact that it's one of those books where you know at the outset what the ending will be. Reading the first few pages I also began to think it was a bit fawning for my taste: over-gushing on the subject of French cooking at a time when very many people would say France is no longer the gastronomic centre of the galaxy.

Then along came page nine, and Mr Chelminski's precise dissection of the French chefs' various attempts to fry the perfect egg. How completely wrong I'd been: the book is in fact a masterwork.

The Perfectionist is a, fantastically researched, truly insider's account of French haute cuisine. In looking at the life and career of Bernard L'Oiseau, Chelminsky, as fine a crafstman in his own calling as the chefs are in theirs, bones out the last seventy years of French restaurant dining in fantastic detail, before serving it up in, perfectly spiced, sauced, and plated, bite sized morsels for his readers. Undoubtedly the best book on cuisine I have ever read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found this to be a fabulously written book; very entertaining and obviously a very knowledgable writer. I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants to know the ins and outs of being a 1st class chef and the pressures that it brings with it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This a very interesting book for any chef or lover of fine dining to look at the history of Michelin and Haute Cuisine in France. The story is both moving and sad especially as you are aware of what the ending will be. This gifted and sensitive man shaped french food in the nineties and his impact on those around him was inspiring. I felt as if I knew him just from reading the book and more often that not biographies fail on that level.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Marie Butler on 7 Jan 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a must read for any self respecting Chef. For those versed in Haute cuisine this will take you on a pleasant and sometimes amusing nostalgia trip .
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 28 reviews
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
The Pressures of Being the Premier Master Chef in France 22 May 2005
By Ed Uyeshima - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The cutthroat atmosphere of haute cuisine in France has been depicted by author Rudolph Chelminski with penetrating detail in his incisive study of one sad casualty, master chef Bernard Loiseau, the suicidal result of his own Machiavellian calamity. Just in his early fifties, Loiseau shot himself in the head in early 2003, after he sensed his reputation starting to slide. The esteemed Guide Gault-Millet downgraded his classic Burgundy restaurant La Cote d'Or in 2002, awarding it 17 out of 20, a significant and unprecedented drop of two points from its previous rating, and rumor had it that Michelin was thinking of stripping Loiseau of his third star. While this may seem trivial to the layman, this was tantamount to banishment from France, a cultural and professional distinction that Chelminski acutely explores in the rarified culinary world there.

Loiseau's career is the foundation of Chelminski's exhaustive and often entertaining book, as we follow his ascension from kitchen apprentice to award-winning chef amid the pressures of maintaining those Michelin stars and even more unrealistically, Loiseau's quest for culinary perfection. It was this stress combined with what was diagnosed as bi-polar disorder (unbeknownst to the public) that led to his suicide. Throughout the late 1980's and the 1990's, Loiseau's developed and mastered a style of cooking called "cuisine d'essences", which was a response to the prevailing climate of health consciousness. He was media-savvy and became a fashionable figure for a time. But times changed, and he was unwilling or unable to change with them. A new generation of chefs had emerged in the early 21st century, and novelty combinations replaced what was perceived as the lackluster concoctions of old-timers. Instead, they were striving to emulate the surrealist, laboratory-inspired inventions of the emerging Catalan chef Ferran Adria. As the author makes clear, Loiseau was simply not capable of adapting his approach, but what's worse, he could not come to terms with no longer being top dog.

Chelminski shows Loiseau's determination to reach the top was tinged with palpable desperation. He had to be the best or nothing in his narrowly focused mind, and he became his own worst enemy. Paranoia set in, and his nervous questioning of those around him set off a damaging chain of murmurs that eventually surfaced in the press. The truth deflated him to no end. Chelminski examines the effects of mental illness and seriously questions whether it is a prerequisite for being the top in anyone's chosen field. La Cote d'Or was open 364 days a year, and Loiseau hardly ever missed a service working fifteen-hour days for more than thirty years. Such monomaniacal behavior would appear to reflect a deep-seeded insecurity masked by a supreme ego and buoyed up by an adoring kitchen staff. Loiseau's innate connection with his restaurant was the model of psychological co-dependency, so much so that when he left La Cote d'Or to open a restaurant in Japan, he had a mental breakdown. In the final months of his life, he started to accept that he wasn't the best, and he must have believed death and perhaps an early legacy were his only options.

This entertaining book works on several levels. Chelminski provides a thorough history of 20th century French Cuisine, in particular, describing the rise of the name food critics' importance in the making of young stars in France. The book is also a morality tale about the lure of fame and the downfall of obsession. It's also a probing study on the effects of mental illness on one's increasingly warped perception of reality. In fact, there are so many different subtexts and themes that ultimately we are left with little doubt that a man so adored by the French culinary world would take his own life. Chelminski's book makes a fine reading complement to Ruth Reichl's recent book about being the New York Times food critic, "Garlic and Sapphires", and Anthony Boudrain's more acerbically funny take on the restaurant business, "Kitchen Confidential".
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
The Flawed Perfectionist 6 Sep 2005
By Ronald Holden - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Two recent books about megalomaniacs: genial, larger-than-life luminaries of the food and wine world, Robert Parker, the American wine critic, and Bernard Loiseau, the French chef. They both tell of youthful talent that became increasingly ambitious as it ripened. Parker, the most powerful individual in the wine industry, ultimately claimed virtual infallibility; Loiseau, anointed with three Michelin stars but beset with doubts, ultimately committed suicide.

The Perfectionist is the saga of Bernard Loiseau, big, outwardly gregarious and confident, inwardly shy and insecure, whose traveling salesman father apprentices him, as a teenager, to the chef at his favorite restaurant. As it happens, while young Bernard is flailing away at his first kitchen tasks, the Michelin guide awards the restaurant three stars. Bernard, who's a competent though not exceptional cook, is awestruck: winning those three stars for himself become his life's obsession.

Bernard is fortunate to find a patron who sets him up at a country inn, the famous Côte d'Or in Saulieu, a once-thriving market town in northern Burgundy now bypassed by the autoroute. No matter: Bernard settles in for the long haul. He assembles a talented team for his kitchen and dining room, he courts the Parisian press, he develops a network of local suppliers. He's unlucky in love (his first wife cheats on him with the maitre d'hôtel) but has a knack for the restaurant business (food journalists adore him); he wins back a Michelin star for venerable auberge, then two.

Now, as Bernard puts it, the trouble with success in the restaurant world is, "C'est jamais gagné." The battle's never over. First you strive for ten or twenty years to reach the top. It's not like training for the Olympics, where a single perfect routine wins you the gold medal; you've got to score a ten every day, twice a day. But then, after you've won, you panic even more: now that you've been given those stars, what if they take them away?

And poor Bernard, though happily married to his second wife, was bipolar. Mostly manic: that was the perfectionist his staff knew, the outgoing giant the adored by the media and the public.

(He was ebulliant, too, when I met him in Saulieu in the fall of 1998, eager to discuss his plans for a new bistro in Paris--eventually three--and an unprecendented plan to raise money by being listed on the Paris stock exchange.)

Then third Michelin star came along, and it seemed Bernard could do no wrong. But the tentacles of darkness were stronger than anyone knew.

A slight slip in one of the guidebooks, a rumor that his third Michelin star was in jeopardy, a change in the culinary fashion dictated by Paris critics: it all took its toll on Bernard.

His manic-depressive disorder--easy to diagnose in retrospect--was never treated. The right medications, it's assumed, could have saved him from his private demons. Instead he succumbed.

Rudolph Chelminsky, a keenly observant foreign correspondent, had already written one of the liveliest books about gastronomy, The French At Table, some 20 years ago. This longevity--critical to professional acceptance in France--and his deep understanding of French culinary history gave him unprecedented access to all the actors in this drama, including Bernard himself over a period of many years.

You taste Bernard's recipes, savor his enthusiasm for hospitality on every page. Even as you cringe at his effusiveness, you savor his generosity.

In the end, you mourn his death, but when the latest Michelin guide again awards his restaurant three stars, you recognize that Bernard Loiseau's spirit lives on.

A footnote to compare this book to William Echikson's Burgundy Stars, also about Loiseau. Chelminsky does everything that Echikson fails to do: he shows us how haute cuisine comes about. I read Burgundy Stars with mounting frustration at a writer whose research consisted of showing up and taking notes; I finished The Perfectionist with heady admiration for the author and his subject. That's the difference between blogging and real journalism.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
This is an important book for any artist/professional 15 May 2006
By E. E. McCain - Published on
Verified Purchase
I picked up this book after learning of the untimely passing of Bernard Loiseau. I previously read "Burgundy Stars" while I was in culinary school and considered that book to be an inspiration. I recommend reading "Burgundy Stars" before tackling this book to get a perspective of Mr. Loiseau during his rise to three stars that is not communicated in "The Perfectionist". The two work in tandem well.

Of course, the suicide of Mr. Loiseau hangs over every passage of this book, so there is a heavy feel to the text from start to finish. With the outcome known, the writer and reader are never able to relax and lightly appreciate the rise of this remarkable man. At every point both the writer and reader are looking for signs of what would lead to the demise of both the man and his image. This is one of my problems with the book. There are few if any light moments to temper the emotion of the death that we all know is on the horizon.

While the tone of the book may be dark, the story is amazing. I feel that anyone who works at high levels or overachieves can take something away from this book. Mr. Loiseau's mental problems are only one component of his personality. "The secret of success is consistency of purpose." No one ever embodied this quote more that Bernard Loiseau. Don't focus on his mental illness, focus on his passion for prefection.

Another problem that I have with the book was that the author integrated himself into the text nicely with personal accounts of his relationship with the great chef, but I wanted more of this. I think that more personal reflections by the author would have endeared me to the story a bit more, but this is just a minor criticism.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I would give it 4.5 out of 5 if possible. If you are a chef, then this is a must-read. Remember, try to read "Burgundy Stars" first, it will make your experience with "The Perfectionist" complete.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Ghoulish 14 Sep 2009
By Bachelier - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This review is dedicated to the brave, admirable, courageous, gracious, and tenacious Madam Dominique Loiseau. France hasn't produced as fine an example of fortitude in the face of tragedy since Veuve Cliquot.

I am sorry I read Rudolph Chelminski's "The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cusine" for I feel the same revulsion as if I'd listened to the narrative of a ghoul.

This biography accurately recounts the story of the tragic Bernard Loiseau's brilliant career (full disclosure, I met him once and have eaten his food four times) and sad descent into paranoia and death from self inflicted harm. It also hints at the periphery of his fear of loosing a Michelin star (a rumor, and nothing more). But it is the detail that Chelminski chooses that is chilling, for he describes all too well the extremes of the extent of trying to please his clients and friends that Chef Loiseau would go to. After Chelminski has given us examples--and we get the point--Chelminski discourteously goes on again, with yet another example. Then another. Then another. "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" is violated to a sickening degree.

In addition, Chelminski makes a damning revelation about himself in a backhanded way. Chelminski freely acknowledges that some of the financial pressure Loiseau constantly suffered was because of his generosity to the glitterati, food press, and hangers-on. But then Chelminski freely recounts all the free meals he sponged off Loiseau himself. The idea that Chelminski tried to cash in on his dead friend one final time by writing this book makes this a sickening read.

In addition, it is clear throughout that Chelminski is a culinary idiot. I have no idea what a "sauce of blended sea urchin tongues" is (page 283 of my Gotham Books May 2006 edition) but I do know that if sea urchins have tongues, that wasn't what made up the sauce he ate since it would take the entire global population of sea urchins to provide a tablespoonful. That is the most offensive example, but it is indicative of Chelminki's purple prose about food throughout: while reaching for something superlative or new to say he reaches too far and becomes a foodie clown.

The index is a horror show and was clearly slapped together by an amateur.

Please read Madam Dominique Loiseau's "Mon Marie : Bernard Loiseau" instead of this horrible, creepy, ghoulish book.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Rudolph Chemelski's gastronomic tour de force 15 July 2005
By Andy Orrock - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Rudolph Chelminski's tale of French haute cuisine chef Bernard Loiseau and his tragically flawed quest and attainment of Michelin's elusive third star reads, to paraphrase a pithy comment made by one of Chelmeski's sources, like "The Flight of Icarus." Loiseau flew a little too close to the sun and his wings melted. At the end of the tale, you heart goes out to his widow Dominique and her three now-fatherless children.

I was fascinated throughout this enjoyable read at the level at which Mr. Chemelski, the Connecticut born and bred author, has steeped himself in the culture of French gastronomy. We often overuse the term "tour de force" when talking about about an impressive display of talent, but it really fits here. Chelemski seems like he was born in the kitchen of a three-star Paris eatery. His comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of the French dining scene and its place in the world will take your breath away. That I should have mastery of a subject with such command and panache!
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