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20 March 2006

The Perfectionist

I've just finished reading The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, Rudolph Chelminski's biography of Bernard Loiseau, the former chef and proprietor at La Côte D'Or.  I found the book fascinating.  Chelminski clearly knew his subject relatively well.  During the book he refers to a number of interviews and meals he had with Loiseau throughout both of their careers and Chelminski clearly held the chef in great esteem and affection.  It does not mean the book is a mushy hagiography, rather it is insightful as to what made this great chef tick.

The majority of the book is taken up with Loiseau's obsession with reaching his goal of three stars.  As part of that Chelminski spends some time putting into context the power of Michelin in France, the role of chefs in French society and the gossip filled-vortex within which the chefs exist.  I found it thoroughly enjoyable.  Loiseau it would seem was a perfectionist in the kitchen and this translated into this style of pure food, relying heavily on a few ingredients of the highest quality cooked in the way that would enhance their flavour to its apotheosis.  He was a leading light in the much-maligned nouvelle cuisine movement and Chelminski goes to great effort to demonstrate that there is much more to this cuisine than large plates, small portions and vile combinations.  As the title of the book suggests, it was to be his search for perfection and obsession with keeping the three stars once he had them, that might well have led to him committing suicide.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in what makes a chef tick.  It will convince 99% of amateur readers that they don't have what it takes to be a chef, let alone a three-star chef.  For the other 1%, I'd bet a large proportion are delusional.  Although this could in no way be described as a cookery book, you might find you pick up the odd very useful tip: such as thickening sauces with boiled and moulied vegetables as a replacement for butter as a thickening agent. I haven't tried it as yet myself, but frankly if it was good enough for Loiseau and the Michelin inspectors, it's almost certainly going to work for me.  A further advantage of this 528 page behemoth is that it is now out in paperback, so you no longer need to worry about lugging around the hardback.

Chelminski, R, 2006, The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, Penguin Books (ISBN: 0141021934)


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