Generally speaking, most professionals feel some level of job-related stress, but when a renowned three-Michelin star chef at the pinnacle of the culinary world commits suicide, one is forced to stop and take notice. The reason why Benoit Violier, who was recently thrust into international spotlight and hailed in the media as ‘the world’s best chef’, committed suicide, is complex and still not clear.
Violier, 44, was found dead in his home on Sunday. He ran the prestigious Restaurant de l’Hotel de Ville in the small Swiss town of Crissier. But, what’s worth noticing is that Violier’s alleged suicide came just days before the release of the 2016 Michelin Guide, the world’s most prestigious culinary guide once described as “the only one that counts” by legendary French chef Paul Boc.
The Swiss police are still investigating Violier’s death: They say they are ‘99% certain’ it was suicide with a firearm.
“He appears to have taken his own life with a firearm,” the Swiss police said in a statement.
Even if that is the case, we may never know exactly why the French-born chef, ranked as Switzerland’s number one by the prestigious Gault et Millau guide in 2013, decided to shoot himself. Violier’s apparent suicide has shocked the restaurant world, which has been left scratching its head over why someone who has been crowned the best chef in the world take his own life.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
According to chefs closer to home, the constant pressure on restaurants to perform and maintain positive reviews “can have serious consequences”.
Mahesh Madhpal, sous chef-banquets, The Leela, New Delhi, hopes that the stress of his number-one ranking was not the cause for his suicide.
In a surprise victory, Violier’s restaurant was recently named the best in the world by La Liste, a French government-endorsed list of the 1,000 best restaurants across the globe. New York’s famed Per Se came in second and Tokyo’s exclusive Kyo Aji took home the third spot in the list released by the French government in December 2015.
“The world of haute cuisine can be especially cruel. Here, the margin between success and failure can be as fine as a single, powerful critic’s review. And coveted ratings, such as Michelin stars, can literally mean life or death for a chef,” says Madhpal.
He adds that if restaurants don’t perform well commercially, there are serious personal financial consequences.
“Your livelihood depends on it. Your children and family get affected,” he said.
Deepak Sood, chef de partie, Le Meridien, New Delhi, agrees that restaurants and their staff are under “a lot of pressure” to maintain positive reviews. He says that running even the smallest restaurant is often an extremely stressful business, and the industry is rife with broken dreams and bankruptcies.
He says the increasing number of professional food bloggers and rise of peer-reviewed websites like Zomato have made life more difficult for those in the food and hospitality industry. There are now more opportunities for a negative review to damage a restaurant’s reputation.
“Quite often, I read things that people say online and feel it’s too hard these days to please everyone. Some of these reviews can make or break you,” says Sood. “There’s a lot of pressure on us to perform and if you have any kind of mental issues or trouble dealing with pressure, it can mount and have very serious consequences.”
Violier is not the first top chef to take his own life. His death is once again taking our attention to the extraordinary, sometimes unbearable pressures they face.
His death is eerily similar to those of Chicago chef Homaro Cantu, 38, who hung himself in April last year, and of 52-year-old French chef Bernard Loiseau, who used a gun on himself in 2003. Loiseau committed suicide after speculation that his restaurant La Côte d’Or was going to lose one of its three Michelin stars.
“They tell you you’re one of the very best, then, overnight, they tell you you’re not,” The Guardian had at the time quoted Guy Martin, of the three-star Grand Vefour in Paris.
“Why? What have you done? How can the skills you’ve painstakingly developed, the creativity you’ve nurtured, the time and energy you’ve invested, disappear from one day to the next?” Vefour had said.
Talking of Violier’s suicide, Sood feels that one has to be in a very dark place in one’s mind to want to kill oneself. But a bad restaurant review shouldn’t push you over the edge.
He says, a restaurant job, particularly in an ambitious kitchen, can be all-consuming.
“The work starts in the morning and can stretch past midnight. Working weekends and holidays is often a given. In fact, low pay and long hours are, for some, a badge of honour,” he says.
According to him, many of the people in the industry have non-conforming personalities and enjoy competition and embrace both long, hard shifts and an excess of food and drinks — all of which can exacerbate mental issues like depression.
A RAZOR’S EDGE
Today’s chefs — who must often be top-flight, profit-making businessmen as well as culinary artists — are under particular strain, three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire was quoted as saying in The Guardian.
“What people don’t often see,” the three-star chef, whose first Michelin-starred restaurant went bankrupt, said some years ago, “is that behind the facade of this profession is suffering and downright exhaustion. We’re on a razor’s edge the whole time, because what we do is a combination of art and business.”
The constant fear of the fall from grace that might one day come, and resentment at the tyranny of a system that, many chefs, like Madhpal, feel, toys with hard-won reputations for reasons that all too often seem unclear or even arbitrary, can have a terrible psychological effect.
And even if restaurant workers do want to seek help for mental issues, there are few resources designed especially for people in the field.
“This is not a profession that affords you the money to be able to go and seek out help,” Madhpal says.
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