Writers' Taste Buds Tingled by Burgundy's Three-Starred Chef

Bernard Loiseau visits N.Y.C. to herald new book

The applause was as thunderous as for any successful Broadway show. Nodding and smiling in the middle of New York's elegant Restaurant Daniel recently were a half dozen chefs, dressed in white from toque to toe. They had just produced a dazzling seven-course lunch, straight out of France, that spoke to taste buds many of those present did not even know they had. Normally hard-to-impress New Yorkers were impressed.

Only 20 restaurants in all of France carry the top, three-star rating in the prestigious Michelin Red Guide that signals ''cooking worth a special journey.'' In this case, La Cote d'Or in the Burgundy farm town of Saulieu, one of the select Michelin 20, in effect came to the Big Apple for the day.

Directing the show, and very much the star performer, was chef Bernard Loiseau, the tanned and smiling owner of La Cote d'Or. His admitted obsession with perfection and authenticity not only led him to bring along not only six members of his restaurant staff, but also to import the needed supply of frog's legs, foie gras, fresh perch, poisses cheese, and chocolate.

The occasion, lunch for 70 journalists and editors, was in honor of the publication of ''Burgundy Stars: A Year in the Life of a Great French Restaurant'' (Little, Brown & Co., 311 pp., $22.95). Written by journalist William Echikson, the book tells the lively story behind Mr. Loiseau's hard-driving, and ultimately successful, reach for the elusive third Michelin star.

The energetic Loiseau, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the book's author, exudes the air of a man ready to meet life's every challenge head on. This is a man who admits, according to the book, ''I live at 150 miles an hour.''

Yes, he can lose his temper and even fire employees when a dish is overcooked or a plate of food looks less than beautiful. He wants his staff, which includes 25 chefs, to always work harder and do better. Yet the book makes clear that he is also a man who has a deep affection for his employees and an almost indefatigable joie de vivre.

As Mr. Echikson notes, this is no ''fairy tale account of haute cuisine.'' Behind the glamour of gastronomic excellence lies an enormous amount of hard work.

Fond of saying he started his career with nothing more than a toothbrush, Loiseau dropped out of school at age 16. He worked first as a pastry chef for a cousin and then apprenticed, peeling potatoes and carrots, in the two-star restaurant in Roanne owned by the respected Troisgras family. Two weeks after his arrival, Michelin awarded the restaurant its third star, and Loiseau has been working for one of his own ever since.

He first went to work at La Cote d'Or in 1975. For a time he rose at 3 a.m. and drove to a market outside Paris for its 5 a.m. opening so he could fill his truck with fresh produce. He had to wait until 1991, more than a decade after he bought the Saulieu restaurant, to earn the prized third star.

He apparently did all the right things from improving the style and taste of the meals to investing $3 million in the renovation of his restaurant-hotel.

His second wife, Dominique, a journalist and biochemist with a doctoral degree in nutrition, has said she is convinced that the stability of their marriage, which now includes two handsome young children, also worked in his favor.

Yet the Michelin mystique lives on. The inspectors are anonymous as they make their rounds of some 5,000 French restaurants. Like regular customers, they pay their bills. Their third-star criteria clearly take into account the service and the decor yet this is never spelled out.

Regular La Cote d'Or customers include former French president Francois Mitterand, who may stop in after a day of mushroom hunting in the country for an oyster salad and crepes, writes Echikson. He faxed Loiseau a ''Bravo for the Star'' message after La Cote d'Or's 1991 victory, and last year gave the restaurateur the additional Legion of Honor award.

One of the special treats of this book is to be on the inside track as employees, including owner Loiseau, watch the faces and behavior of the more famous diners, including American food critic Patricia Welles.

She once dismissed La Cote d'Or's cheese tray as ''embarrassing'' with its ''insipid'' local goat cheese and an poisses that was ''not well aged.'' The tale of how she was won over anew, just before Loiseau wins his third star, is as compelling a read as fiction.

From the start, Bernard Loiseau wants only the best and freshest local products. We go with the headwaiter to taste area cheeses while Bernard himself samples jams made by a local resident and pronounces them ''better than mine.''

The message throughout ''Burgundy Stars'' is that caring counts and that striving is a major ingredient of almost every success.

Loiseau is not a man about to rest on his laurels. Near the end of the book, he is quoted as saying to a colleague: ''Don't you think Michelin should create a fourth star?''

If it does, keep an eye out for the famous chef from Burgundy.

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