'Being a chef is so demanding, you might not like who you become'
In the wake of the apparent tragic suicide of star chef Benoît Violier, Ed Power talks to our own culinary stars about the pressures of life in a top-class kitchen
Published 02/02/2016 | 02:30
The apparent suicide of superstar chef Benoît Violier has highlighted once again the tremendous pressures under which those operating at the highest level of the profession operate.
Widely proclaimed "world's greatest chef", the 44-year-old Swiss-native was regarded as a dazzling talent, his Michelin three-star Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in Crissier, near Lausanne, rated among the most innovative in modern gastronomy.
But he seemingly took his life with a shotgun, hours before he was due to attend the launch of the latest Michelin Guide in Paris yesterday.
"The guys in the kitchens of those one, two, three-star restaurants are under enormous pressure," says Dylan McGrath (below), the Irish chef who achieved a Michelin star with his now defunct Mint eatery in Ranelagh Dublin, and went on to open Rustic Stone and Fade Street Social.
"One salad leaf out of place is a break in consistency… The job can be so demanding you may not like who you are after a while."
Violier is not the first high-end chef to seemingly crack under the strain of maintaining dizzying standards. In 2003, France's Bernard Loiseau allegedly took his own life amid reports Michelin was about to demote his restaurant to two stars. The pressure to be perfect was, friends agreed, simply too much.
"For three stars you have to be scared, you have to feel the adrenaline rush," award-winning French chef Yannick Alléno says in Three Stars, a documentary about the sacrifices required to win approval from Michelin's notoriously finicky inspectors. "That's how it must be when you're cooking."
"Most decent chefs are aiming for culinary excellence. They want to produce good, tasty plates of food," added food critic William Sitwell in his book Michelin Stars; The Madness Of Perfection.
"But what happens when you add the words 'Michelin-starred' into that recipe? I wonder if, at that point, the path towards perfection becomes dangerously obsessive."
"We serve six courses so if I do 100 people on a Friday or Saturday night, that's a bare minimum of 600 plates of food going out of the kitchen without a fingerprint or a streak of oil, " says Gary O'Hanlon, head chef at Viewmount House, Longford and a veteran of high-end restaurants in the United States, including Devlin's in Boston, run by Michelin-star chef Colin Devlin.
"Anyone who tells you that cooking food and being innovative at that pace for hours of service doesn't bring stress is crazy. Of course it does. Some people are just built for it."
When the pressure is on, he says, there's an understanding that niceties go out the window.
"Every guest is a VIP so far as I'm concerned but if a couple of chefs are out there, or a food critic, or you have an inkling it's a Michelin inspector, you're not going to say to a colleague 'would you mind passing me the foie gras?' or 'would you mind passing the lobster?'
"That just doesn't cut it. It's a case of, 'can you get a f***ing move on?' You might go off key."
"I've never worked like that - we have a very calm operation here. However, it is the reality in the industry," says Denis Cotter, chef and proprietor of acclaimed Cork vegetarian restaurant Cafe Paradiso.
"I've worked with people who have come from that side of the business. It is perceived to be part of the training. That's why being a chef is often compared to the military.
"You get kicked on the way up so by the time you get up there you feel that kicking and shouting is part of how you train people."
When striving for a Michelin star, as Gary O'Hanlon is, burn-out is a constant risk. However, if you push yourself too far you cease to be creative, he says. And that, more than exhaustion or frayed tempers, can be the true kiss of death to a career.
So, to build a reputation in the long term, it is necessary to balance intense determination with an appreciation of the bigger picture.
"It's very much a dog-eat-dog world," he says. "I suppose I'm stressed all the time - have a headache all the time. But not in a bad way.
"If I was stuck in a three-star hotel… I'd be a lot more unhappy. The pressure is something I put on myself. It's like being a Premier League footballer. You strive to be the best."
On the continent especially, achieving and maintaining a Michelin star is regarded as a matter of life or death - if not even more serious, according to American chef and presenter Anthony Bourdain.
"Most of them started cooking in their teens, at an age that would be completely illegal in the States," he told Vanity Fair last year.
"These are abused children… They worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for most of their career.
"Their entire self-image - creatively, investment of time, every morsel of food - matters. Every harsh word on Yelp matters. So, to lose a star means a lot. It hurts them personally. Their identity and who they are - their very essence - is wrapped up in how people react to their food," he added.
In Benoît Violier's case other factors may have been at play, Dylan McGrath points out.
"I know the death of his father, who was a mentor, affected him. But he has said that haute cuisine at his level required pressure - and when the consequences of a chef getting something wrong are that serious, it does something to your soul.
"It certainly did with me at Mint, where I know every day I had to be consistent. It is a relentless game of pressure. Something cracked in this brilliant man - someone who was a game-changer. It is very sad."