François Vatel was a significant culinary figure of the 17th century, the chef to Prince Louis of Condé. According to legend, he became so distraught one day when the fish delivery failed to appear for a major banquet that he killed himself with his sword. Until recently, this anecdote has been tossed around with some amusement in the restaurant trade.
A recent spate of chef suicides has made the subject no laughing matter. Last week, Benoit Violier became the latest casualty of unrelenting kitchen pressure. Violier, 44, was the chef/proprietor of the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland, opened in 1971 by the remarkable Fredy Girardet. The establishment held the ultimate accolade of three Michelin stars, and had recently been named the world’s best restaurant by France’s La Liste.
He was found dead at his home on January 31, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was not the first top chef suicide in recent years. Last March, Homaro Cantu hung himself in Chicago. Cantu was the chef at Moto, a Michelin-starred molecular restaurant in the tradition of Ferran Adria.
No reason has been given publicly for Violier’s suicide, but the speculation is centered on the monumental expectations placed on someone in his position. The standard for three Michelin stars is perfection—not occasionally, but every dish at every meal. Given that human beings are far from perfect, we can only imagine how those demands impact the person in charge. In the wake of this incident, newspapers and magazines are reexamining the macho kitchen culture that allows for no weakness or mistakes at any time.
Of course, the closest parallel to Violier was Bernard Loiseau, chef/proprietor of La Côte D’Or in Burgundy, also the holder of three Michelin stars. The ebullient Loiseau was one of the great chefs of the 20th century, a man of seemingly boundless energy. He shot himself to death in 2003. In retrospect, we learned that he was bipolar and had refused to take his medication.
No one seems to know if Violier suffered from the same problems, but the similarities are uncanny. Both men were obsessed with perfection, and had dedicated their lives to attaining it. Both were frightened of losing a Michelin star. And both died holding their hunting rifle in their hands.
Loiseau and Violier had climbed to the top of the mountain. It appears that their real conflicts began when they stopped at the summit, caught their breath, and looked down.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com