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‘World’s best chef’ suicide: Life in restaurants getting too stressful?

health and fitness Updated: Feb 04, 2016 12:44 IST
Sanya Panwar
Sanya Panwar
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Benoit Violier, centre, 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. (Instagram)

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.

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food,” Benoit Violier’s Instagram page proves that. See some of his beautiful signature dishes below. (Instagram)

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.

Read: Overworked? Here’s how to deal with work stress

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.

The 44-year-old’s Swiss restaurant came top of the French La Liste ranking of the world’s 1,000 best eateries. (Instagram)

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”.

Violier moved to Paris in 1991, training with top French chefs including Joel Robuchon and Benoit Guichard. He said his time there taught him “rigour, discipline and the art of the beautiful gesture”. (Instagram)

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.

In an indication of the standards he held himself to, Violier said: “Nothing is ever definitive, everything must be repeated every day.” (Instagram)

“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.

Read: Think work-from-home isn’t stressful? You’re so wrong

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.

Benoit Violier’s passion for gastronomy was inspired by his mother from a young age, while he learned about wine, cognac and hunting from his father. (Instagram)

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.

Dishes at L’Hotel de Ville included French classics such as pigs trotters with black truffle, and sea urchin in champagne sauce. Having worked at the restaurant since 1996, Mr Violier took it over along with his wife Brigitte in 2012. (Instagram)

“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.”

FAMILIAR STORY

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.

Benoît Violier, the celebrated chef whose restaurant in Switzerland was deemed the world’s best eatery by French critics less than two months ago, was found dead at his home on Sunday. (Instagram)

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.

Read: Ten quick tips to avoid a burnout

“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.

Violier and his wife Brigitte ran the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville outside of the city of Lausanne. (Instagram)

“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.

Many of Benoit Violier’s star culinary peers took to social media to express their grief and shock. (Instagram)

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.

Benoit Violier was originally from France but later took on Swiss citizenship. He was known for his hunting skills, and game was something that was often reflected on his expensive $370 menus, enjoyed by many heads of state and celebrities. (Instagram)

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.

According to a biography on his website, Mr Violier grew up in a family of seven children in the town of Saintes, in western France. (Instagram)

“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.”

Read: Don’t worry, be happy, as stress, anxiety could lead to dementia

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.

It is unclear who will succeed Violier as chef at the Restaurant De L’Hotel De Ville Crissier-Suisse. (Instagram)

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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