Chef reached for the stars--and captured all three

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAULIEU, France -- In the United States boys may dream of becoming astronauts or the next Michael Jordan. In this land of truffles, terrines and 300 types of cheese, many boys dream of becoming three-star chefs.

Bernard Loiseau, who as a teen-ager hung pictures of famous chefs on his wall, has finally had his dream come true. In March, the Michelin Guide consecrated his Cote d'Or restaurant here with a third star.

Mr. Loiseau, 40, says half-jokingly that the main reason he is so bald is that he has pushed himself so mercilessly to earn it.

Along the way, he invested $5 million of borrowed money to turn his restaurant, 150 miles south of Paris, into an epicure's palace.

"As long as I worry, I will be good, but it's not easy to live this way," said Mr. Loiseau, who says he works 365 days a year and has not taken a vacation in 16 years.

His efforts are part of a trend in which promising chefs become builder-entrepreneurs because they have learned that good cooking alone is not enough to merit a third star.

Mr. Loiseau invested in a resplendent dining room, luxurious guest rooms and a gleaming, oversized kitchen to make his guests -- and Michelin's inspectors -- swoon. Now he hopes to begin recouping his investment.

"What you put in the plate will not, by itself, earn you a third star," said Mr. Loiseau, a talkative, husky man who has a smile for every customer. "You have to have magnificent decor, magnificent floral arrangements, magnificent guest rooms."

The third star came none too soon. Mr. Loiseau was spiraling deeper into debt as he forever tried to make his restaurant more perfect.

Now he hopes to increase his revenues by 50 percent and save himself from drowning under his $40,000 in monthly debt payments.

"Three stars is something exceptional, something extraordinary," said Emil Jung, chef at Le Crocodile in Strasbourg. "The Michelin Guide has a worldwide following."

After winning its third star in 1989, Le Crocodile's revenues jumped 35 percent: 10 percent from more guests, 10 percent from higher prices and 15 percent from what Mr. Jung called "the quality of the client," meaning guests with deeper pockets.

Last winter, even though one restaurant guide ranked Mr. Loiseau among France's top three chefs, his two-star restaurant often attracted just 50 guests a day.

At lunch, sometimes only 12 of 80 settings were filled. After receiving the third star in March, Mr. Loiseau had 80 visitors a day during the spring, and he hopes to average 120 a day in the peak summer months.

The anonymous restaurant inspectors for the Michelin Red Guide, which sells 675,000 copies each year, visit 5,000 restaurants in France.

They have awarded one star to 495 restaurants and two stars to 87 -- but three stars to just 19. In the Michelin canon, three stars signifies "cooking worth a special journey."

And journey the customers do. Faxes have begun to flow in from New York and Tokyo, asking Mr. Loiseau for reservations two months in advance.

Hundreds of Parisians make daily excursions by the high-speed Train a Grande Vitesse.

Mr. Loiseau receives requests for television interviews and offers to write cookbooks, and he is hoping for a hefty contract to serve as a consultant to a food company.

"It was what I always wanted," he said. "For years, I chased after this."

How much does the third star mean? Paul Bocuse's restaurant outside Lyon became a landmark, and he now sells watches with his face on it.

Maurice Senderens, the chef at Lucas Carton in Paris, sells a Senderens food line in Japan.

"We're selling dreams," Mr. Loiseau said.

At his restaurant, those dreams include frogs' legs with a puree of garlic, sea bream with red wine sauce on a moist bed of shallots, and sauteed crayfish with baby vegetables in a light veal stock.

But the dreams go beyond food. The delicate snifters of cognac, the roaring fireplace, all aim to cosset his guests and caress their senses. His guest rooms in the style of Louis XV have 18th century oil paintings and mahogany armoires.

Unlike some top chefs, Mr. Loiseau did not inherit a family restaurant and learn at his father's side. He is very much a self-made man.

The son of a traveling apparel salesman, he arrived at the Cote d'Or at the age of 24, "with nothing but my toothbrush." He spent 14 years living in a small, dark room above the restaurant.

After having apprenticed under several leading chefs, he developed and became the leading exponent of a new style of cooking, cuisine du jus.

This style largely eschews cream, butter and flour for sauces, and instead relies on the natural juices of what is cooked.

Mr. Loiseau is renowned for his vegetables and for his $60 all-potato menu, which includes potatoes minced with black truffles and bathed in braised oxtail juice.

"His is a remarkable talent, as pure as the song of the nightingale," wrote the Gault Millau restaurant guide.

He has an innate sense of marketing and of what the customer wants.

"My cooking is natural and light," he said. "It comes from the soil. It pleases Americans, who worry about cholesterol. It pleases the Japanese.

"I have heard too many stories of people who go to luxurious restaurants, eat a lot of heavy food and go home feeling sick. Why should someone feel sick after spending $100 for what is supposed to be a pleasurable meal?"

Dinner at the Cote d'Or can easily run to more than $100 a person, and the chef acknowledges that it is not cheap. But he has debts and a 50-member staff to pay.

And businessman that he is, Mr. Loiseau has no intention of changing his ways. He knows that if he does not continue checking the ashtrays and examining the waiters' fingernails, Michelin can kick him out of three-star heaven.

Before coming to Saulieu, Mr. Loiseau began at 17 as apprentice to the Troisgros brothers' three-star restaurant in Roanne. Next, he went to work for Roger Verge, at the Barriere de Clichy in Paris.

Shortly after the death of the Cote d'Or's legendary previous chef, Alexandre Dumaine, who also won three stars, Mr. Verge agreed to buy the restaurant and set Mr. Loiseau up in it. It was an uphill battle, because the restaurant lost its stars after Dumaine's death and a new superhighway through Burgundy bypassed Saulieu, which was on the old main road from Paris to the Riviera.

But Mr. Loiseau quickly put the Cote d'Or back on the map. In 1977, when he was 26, he won his first Michelin star.

In 1982, Mr. Loiseau agreed to buy the restaurant for $200,000 from Mr. Verge, who had purchased it for $100,000.

Mr. Loiseau invested $330,000 to renovate it, won a second star in 1983, and in 1984 borrowed another $330,000 to buy the hotel housing the restaurant.

In 1985, he invested $1.1 million to construct 10 luxury suites, some of them duplexes with antique armoires and wrought-iron staircases.

The expansions and renovations continued, and in 1990 he spent $2 million to buy the hotel-restaurant next door and to build an airy, high-ceilinged, salmon-colored dining room.

He also built a kitchen five times as large as his previous one and added a garden outside the dining room.

All told, he invested $5 million. "I can't afford to close down for vacation," he said. He expects revenues to reach $4.3 million this year, up from $2.9 million last year.

Michelin officials tacitly encouraged building binges like Mr. Loiseau's when they said that food in three-star restaurants was not necessarily better than in some two-star establishments and that what separated them was that the three-stars' service, welcome and decor was irreproachable.

But Michelin officials now seem intent on discouraging master chefs from becoming master builders, perhaps tired of jokes that the guide is awarding stars for architecture as much as for cuisine.

"Some restaurants have invested too much money, and it wasn't necessary," said Bernard Naegellen, director of the Michelin Guide.

But Mr. Loiseau still feels the need to build more. "Now, people are asking for a swimming pool and why there are no [whirlpool baths] in the rooms," he said. "It never stops."

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