Can Loiseau be Loiseau without Loiseau?
Can you continue the legacy of a chef-driven restaurant long after the chef is no longer with us?
During my lifetime, there have been many chefs I have idolized. I studied their lives trying to comprehend what made them tick, much like a student of music might study a great composer. I read the great chefs’ cookbooks cover to cover like a novel; I devoured any and all articles I could find written about them; I ate in their restaurants if I could afford it; I even cooked their dishes and featured them on my menus; anything, just anything to try to glean one small piece of their culinary perspective and philosophy and incorporate it into my style.
Bernard Loiseau was one such chef that I greatly adored and tried to emulate. Bernard had a meteoric rise from his early training at the Troisgros brothers’ trendsetting restaurant (1968–1971) to becoming the Gault et Millau media darling in Paris at ‘La barrière de Clichy’ to moving to Saulieu in 1975 and eventually building his empire starting in 1982 when he purchased the crumbling ‘La Côte d’Or’ from Claude Verger, his former boss. By 1991, Bernard had developed his own unique style and finally received his third star from the Michelin Guide.
I don’t do cuisine a l’eau, Please don’t call it that. It’s not water cooking. What I am doing here is traditional French cooking with a new look, updated and modernized. To be at the top level you’ve got to have a style, the way Michel Guerard did in the ‘Pot au Feu’. He left the scales on his sea bass and cooked it in the oven with seaweed and virgin olive oil, and served it with a watercress puree. Fantastic! He was twenty years ahead of everyone else — he created nouvelle cuisine.
Now I’ve created my style here. Nothing is disguised with sauces the way they used to do in the old days. I do sauces, but their role is just to let the ingredients express themselves and really taste of what they are. I’ll never have more than three, maybe sometimes four, flavors on the plate. I do each element separately, then put them together on the plate, and they join up — schlak! Explosions of taste in your mouth!” — Bernard Loiseau
Chef Loiseau’s style turned grande cuisine on its ear. He developed his own personal style, cuisine des essences, that shunned cream and butter and focused on capturing the essences of ingredients.
His classic, sauteed frog legs with parsley and garlic, is a prime example. The classic preparation where gobs of butter are cooked with parsley and garlic is replaced by a water-based puree of parsley and a pure spoonful of garlic boiled four times in water to remove the astringency before pureeing. The frog legs are still sauteed in butter to give richness and crunch but patted completely dry after cooking to remove any unnecessary fat from the dish. His sauces were so feather-light that when he received his third Michelin star Paul Bocuse was standing on a small bridge near Bernard’s restaurant and quipped “Look, there goes another Loiseau sauce down the river”.
We’re not the best, we’re just more numerous. The competition is global now. There’s talent everywhere. — Alain Ducasse
By the late 1990s, Bernard was deep in debt from constant upgrades, renovations, and expansions. The style of food and tastes of clientele changed from predominantly French to a new form of fusion cooking incorporating ingredients from around the world, in particular, Asia. Loiseau had decided to stay true to his roots and keep the course. Gault et Millau dropped his rating from 19/20 to 17/20 and rumors began circulating that the Michelin guide was going to drop his third star. Bouts of severe depression were becoming more frequent and sadly on February 24th, 2003, after working his shift, Bernard took his own life.
Please forgive me for condensing what was a brilliant, albeit brief, career into just a few short lines. It is not fair to Loiseau’s legacy, but I felt a small bit of background was necessary for the few people who may not have heard of him. I strongly encourage you to read Rudolph Chelminskis’ thorough book on Bernard’s life and death, The Perfectionist, for more detailed and lengthy biographical information. In fact, if you are interested in what happens behind the kitchen doors of great restaurants you should read it.
Our Experience eating at Loiseau
Ok, some serious nitpicking and opinionated diatribes coming forth tonight, so pour yourself a big glass of wine and settle in, it might get ugly. Join the discussion in the comments OR, if easily offended, just read another post and blame this on too much Pommard.
The highlight of today was a visit to Restaurant Loiseau des Vignes, yes, the late, great Bernard Loiseau’s namesake restaurant in Beaune. I believe this was his second restaurant after taking over Alexandre Dumaine’s legendary spot in Saulieu decades before. (Read more about Dumaine’s impact on French cuisine).
I had very mixed feelings about eating here, but a good friend and trusted gastronome assured me that the wines by the glass were worth the trip alone. My apathy stemmed from contemplating whether you can succeed or should continue the legacy of a chef-driven restaurant long after the chef is no longer with us. At what point do you have to stop doing the dishes that made the restaurant and legacy famous and start finding another path? Mado Point famously continued her husband Fernand’s legacy long after his premature death on March 4th, 1955 caused by, as one journalist wrote, suicide by champagne.
A large part of me wanted to return to Loiseau’s golden age of the 1980s and 1990s and eat all his classics rather than the menu presented to me.
Perhaps it was my expectations that I had to let go of.
I found it almost ironic that the menu was filled with trendy twists that Bernard himself had resisted, like pickled raspberries, kirimochi, and farofa, the Brazilian preparation of cassava flour cooked in bacon fat till it resembles bread crumbs. It seemed so contrary to his original concept of cuisines des essences to serve this food here.
I was relieved to see local, familiar ingredients like snails from Fontaines, Morvan ham, pike perch, delicious pigeons from Louhans and ice cream made from a local anise-flavored candy made the grade. But still, I was eating in Bernard’s house with a smiling portrait of him staring at me throughout the entire meal.
How far from the man could I really stray with all the reminders staring me in the face?
The food was generally good, but a couple of big missteps kept it from being great. The delicate Fontaine snails were completely lost and overpowered by a smothering sauce of sweet corn and crumbly farofa. The pike-perch dumplings were incredible and the meurette sauce really tied the dish to the region, but I did not like the kirimochi and felt it was completely out of place on the plate, almost like an afterthought. The pigeon too was a mixed bag; on one hand, it was perfectly cooked with the rich flavor expertly contrasted by the brightness of fresh raspberries. But I found the amaranth pop to be a bit bothersome and tiring to eat. I am still not sure I correctly understood or tasted what the chef called raspberry pickles because nothing tasted remotely pickled.
On the other hand, the poached egg was an incredible dish full of wonderful tastes and contrasting textures. It was both beautiful to behold and even better to eat. The matured Epoisses with raisins sprayed with Marc was a heavenly combination. What can you say about an incredible cheese tray other than it was incredible? The apricots crepe souffle was feather light and simply to die for. The very first amuses of miniature kugelhopfs and gougeres were perfect, as were the finishing mignardises.
The Decline of French Cuisine
I enjoyed my experience overall but felt the decline of French fine dining happening within the very walls while I was eating there. A nearby table of Japanese tourists was wearing headphones while eating, too casually dressed in shorts and tee shirts in an almost empty dining room.
Server mishaps, like dropping silverware on the floor, not once but twice during the course of our meal, should never have happened. The waiters looked bored and their demeanor carried over to the experience.
These faux pas may seem minuscule to most people but rarely occur, if ever, in restaurants of this caliber. It left me feeling like the level of high end, fine dining in France has deteriorated to the point where I probably will never spend the princely sums required to dine there and will opt for more casual and often better, simpler restaurants.
I admire Dominique, Bernard’s wife, for continuing in what must have been a tremendously hard load to bear. I could never imagine the depth of pain she must have felt by Bernard’s death. I congratulate her on expanding the empire and keeping his name relevant, but am still wondering whether it lost its soul.
The Menu in Pictures
I always ask for the French menu when dining at high-end restaurants in France. Too often the translations appearing on the English menus are laughable or inaccurate or seriously short of information.
Loiseau’s was no exception with several easy to spot typos and bizarre translations of known culinary terms like ‘en meurette’ and farofa. I put both the French and English menu descriptions under each picture.