Suicide Highlights 'Extraordinary' Pressures on Top Chefs

Benoit Violier wasn't the only cuisinier to feel the heat from high-stakes career
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 2, 2016 1:21 PM CST
In this Oct. 8, 2012, file photo, chef Benoit Violier poses with his certificate for "Chef of the Year" in his kitchen at the Hotel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland.   (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

(Newser) – The suicide of "world's best chef" Benoit Violier illuminates not only the 44-year-old's personal troubles, but also the more pervasive pressures felt by many of the world's top culinary artists. The Guardian reports Violier had suffered recent personal loss, including the deaths of his dad and his cooking mentor within months of each other. But the paper also notes that other top chefs have suffered from depression and anxiety, and even taken their own lives, and that Violier's suicide highlights the "extraordinary, sometimes unbearable pressures they must face." Among those pressures, per the Guardian and the New York Times: demands for perfection, an aversion to showing weakness, and a fear that restaurants will be downgraded and hard-won reputations sullied. "They tell you you're one of the very best; then, overnight, they tell you you're not," a Parisian chef tells the Guardian, referencing the 2003 suicide of chef Bernard Loiseau.

Loiseau shot himself after an esteemed guide lowered his eatery's rating and it was rumored Michelin would do the same. "If I lose a star, I'll kill myself," he had told a fellow chef shortly before his death (Michelin ended up maintaining his rating). Some chefs find the highly coveted stars they're awarded so burdensome that they actually give them back, saying the high stakes involved make them sick. This isn't new, either: The Guardian points out that Francois Vatel, a 17th-century "celebrity chef" who cooked for royalty, fell (literally) on his own sword when the fish he needed for a Louis XIV dinner never showed. All of this leads to another debate broached by chefs in the Times: whether there are adequate resources and support for chefs in this pressure-cooker career. "It can't keep happening; it just can't," says a food writer who started the Chefs With Issues project to shed light on the industry's stresses and proliferating mental illnesses. (Just last year, a famed Chicago chef took his own life.)

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