In today’s paper there was a sad story. It was about the suicide of a Michelin starred chef, Benoit Violier, head chef of the ‘worlds best restaurant’: Restaurant De L’Hotel De Ville Crissier-Suisse in Switzerland. The man who had reached the pinnacle of success in the culinary world. The 44 year old had it all; a successful restaurant, a beautiful wife, a young son, so why did he end it? Because as a chef you are the only artist whose legacy is destroyed or made by a masterpiece that is demolished within minutes of creation. You are only as good as your last dish.
Imagine if Da Vinci could only be a success if he produced copy after copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’ to order within 15mins of each other. Or if Mozart was written off as a failure because he messed up bar.74 of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ the 20th time he performed it despite working a 90hr week. Or even if Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, whilst an accolade, simply meant that he was expected to nail every take he did on his next film first time, whilst conveying the emotion of his performance in ‘The Theory of Everything’. And on top of that, everyone on the film set took a picture and immediately tweeted the achievement or demie of that single take. Welcome to the world of the professional chef. Everyone is an expert in food, because everyone eats. They know what they like, they know what they don’t, they tell you when it’s overcooked, undercooked, over seasoned, not what they ordered and they discredit that business and livelihood you built up over years in a single line on Twitter, Instagram, a newspaper. I’m pretty sure Justin Bieber would not have brushed off his bad performance at last week’s O2 arena gig if he’d lost his Grammys based on that one show.
Of course it is a chef’s lot. We buy into the lifestyle when we enter the industry. Chefs understand the risks, the pressure, the work. I’ve seen first hand chefs come in at 6am on their day off because a late shipment of beef meant it hadn’t been prepped for that evening’s service. More worryingly I’ve seen a chef’s hand shaking when he comes back from the bathroom having just snorted cocaine because he was surviving on 2-3hours sleep and I’ve smelt vodka surreptitiously snuck in to the kitchen in water bottles. Arethe extremes what makes a good chef?
I can’t say I’ve ever felt the pressures that Benoit Violier faced but I know what it’s like to feel like a failure. When you’ve cooked a steak a hundred times and this time you misjudge medium rare. When you’ve seasoned a sauce to perfection and this time you’ve forgotten you’re adding bacon so it’s over salted. I’ve come from a long line of pressurising environments; from a high achieving school to Cambridge, no matter what the teachers said my perfectionism meant, almost always, second best didn’t feel good enough. Whilst perfectionism in the industry is an issue that needs to be addressed, today’s sobering news is forcing me at least to reassess my own attitude. I’m at cookery school to learn, if I already knew everything there would be no point in paying the fees. The highest bar is always the one we set ourselves so you’re never going to be a success if you set up it at an impossible height. The same is probably true of Benoit Violier. Yes he had expectations to fill but at the end of the day it’s just food. All of us chefs would do well to remember that, it’s not worth dying for.