Top Chef Gave No Hint of Distress Before Apparent Suicide


Benoît Violier in 2012. Credit Marcel Gillieron/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — Just days before the star French-Swiss chef Benoît Violier was found dead at his home in Switzerland, after apparently shooting himself with his own gun, the soft-spoken 44-year-old chef gave little hint that he was troubled in his last interview.

Mr. Violier’s apparent suicide shook the culinary world and spurred global debate about the intense pressures chefs face in a macho industry of punishing rankings and sometimes cruel food critics that has pushed several chefs in recent years to take their own lives.

Mr. Violier, an avid hunter and master of cooking game, had reached the apex of gastronomic excellence, and friends and fellow chefs have been baffled by his death.

In December, his Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, near Lausanne, was designated the best restaurant in the world in La Liste, a guide ranking 1,000 restaurants in 48 countries that was commissioned by the French Foreign Ministry. He had written a thousand-page encyclopedia devoted to European game birds. He worked side by side at the restaurant with his wife, Brigitte, and had a 12-year old son, Romain.

In his last interview, given to the French newspaper Libération just three days before he died, Mr. Violier, whose clients included Sharon Stone, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and the former king of Spain, Juan Carlos, suggested he did worry about whether his success would last.

“It’s all about clients coming back,” he told the newspaper in the interview, which was published on Tuesday.

“I hope that it lasts,” he added. “You have always to remain concentrated.” He described being a chef as all consuming.

Mr. Violier bemoaned television shows that made young people believe that in three months, they could become stars. He said he was not in thrall to rankings or Michelin stars, suggesting that he preferred to let his food speak for itself. His restaurant had three Michelin stars, the highest possible number.

He also noted that his small and elegant restaurant was located in a somewhat gritty industrial area near the exit of a highway. “You know people don’t come here for the sea views,” he joked.

In the rarefied world of star chefs, Mr. Violier was firmly perched at the top, and fellow chefs and friends said there was little to suggest that anything was amiss.

Pierre-Marcel Favre, his editor, who spent six years working with him on his encyclopedia devoted to European game birds, told Libération that he remained perplexed by Mr. Violier’s death. “He was in control, relaxed, serious, had lots of ongoing projects,” he said.

There has been speculation that it could have been an accident, but Mr. Favre said this was unlikely, given that Mr. Violier was a seasoned hunter. The hypothesis that he may have been attacked was equally fanciful because Mr. Violier owned guns and could have defended himself, he said. The Swiss police, who are investigating the circumstances of his death, have suggested that he ended his own life.

In a hypercompetitive industry where chefs can be demoted overnight and where there are heavy demands to match culinary perfection with global branding, Mr. Violier’s death has renewed a debate over whether the system of ranking chefs, inherently subjective, needs updating.

In 2003, Bernard Loiseau, the chef and owner of the Côte d’Or, a Michelin three-star restaurant in the Burgundy region of France, committed suicide at age 52, after the Gault & Millau lowered his rating, fanning alarm that he could lose one of his Michelin stars.

This week, the Michelin Guide demoted his Relais Bernard Loiseau to two stars. His widow Dominique was quoted by Le Monde as saying she was “shocked and disappointed” by the demotion after more than 25 years, adding that the restaurant would do everything to try and regain the star.

The guide declined to comment. But Michael Ellis, managing director of Michelin Restaurant and Hotel Guides was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that “it was a difficult decision but it is part of the job.”

“We made numerous visits to be absolutely sure,” he said. “I hope the Relais Bernard Loiseau gets the star back as soon as possible.”

Mr. Violier, for his part, conveyed notable insouciance when it came to the honors bestowed upon him. Mention of his three stars is conspicuously underplayed on his restaurant’s website.

He told Libération that he had not been aware of La Liste, the rankings commissioned by the French ministry of foreign affairs, until the A.F.P. informed him that he had been given the top spot on the list.

“I didn’t want to go to the prize-giving ceremony,” he said. “I had planned to change my menu that day.”

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