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'Chasing An Ideal,' World-Class Chefs Find Themselves Under Extreme Pressure

Feb 4, 2016
Originally published on February 4, 2016 3:51 pm

The world of haute cuisine lost one of its brightest stars over the weekend.

Benoit Violier, a French Swiss chef who many said was the best in the world, died in his home in Switzerland in what appears to have been a suicide. He was 44.

Violier owned the Restaurant de l'Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, near Lausanne. It's one of the few restaurants in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars. There has been some speculation that the pressure that comes with operating a restaurant at that level may have had something to do with Violier's death.

As chef Eric Ziebold tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, the world of elite restaurants is notoriously intense.

"In the kitchen there's an incredible physical pressure; it's not uncommon for it to be an 18-hour day," says Ziebold, a Washington, D.C.-based restaurateur who for years was chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller's Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry, which has three Michelin stars.

"Outside of that, you get into the pressure of everything that it means to be operating a restaurant that isn't just at the highest level, but a restaurant that is chasing an ideal," he says.

Ziebold is currently chef and co-owner of Kinship and Métier, which will open in the coming weeks. He spoke to NPR about the pressure in the kitchen and the office.

Ziebold hasn't yet received any Michelin stars at his own establishments, but he says he's striving to offer his guests a "flawless" luxury experience. He says he tries to anticipate his guests' needs. For example, he keeps a supply of pashminas in the restaurant to offer to guests if they're cold. "Hopefully, you have a color that will go with their outfit," he says.

It's a luxury experience, and, Ziebold says, "when you get to that point of Michelin three stars, it's an experience worth building a trip around." At this level, he says chefs also become hypercritical of every detail.

"For me personally, [the death of Violier] ... has been reflective for me in trying to make sure that what we do is sustainable, that we're not going to be just a flash in the pan, but we're going to be able to carry out and chase our vision."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The world of cuisine lost one of its brightest stars over the weekend. Chef Benoit Violier, considered one of the best in the world, died last Sunday in apparent suicide. Violier owned the Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in Switzerland, one of the few in the world with three Michelin stars. And there was speculation that the pressure that comes with operating a restaurant at that level may have had something to do with his death. World-class restaurants are certainly a high-stakes business. A bad review, a downgrade in stars - both can destroy a reputation, and even put a restaurant out of business. Eric Ziebold was the longtime chef de cuisine at the three-star California restaurant The French Laundry, and now has two restaurants of his own in Washington, D.C. Good morning.

ERIC ZIEBOLD: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: It is not clear at this moment in time why Benoit Violier might have taken his life, but he would have been under pressure, certainly, at work. And you've worked in this sort of restaurant. You are opening restaurants at these higher levels. What is the pressure both in the kitchen and in the office?

ZIEBOLD: Sure, I - well, in the kitchen, I mean, to start with, there's an incredible physical pressure. I mean, it's, you know, not uncommon for it to be an 18-hour day. Outside of that, you get into the pressure of everything that it means to be operating a restaurant that isn't just at the highest level, but a restaurant that is chasing an ideal.

MONTAGNE: So give an example of the kind of ideals of perfection that people are striving for that are measured to a great degree by these stars.

ZIEBOLD: So the goal is to so anticipate your guests' needs that all of their problems go away - that it's just a flawless experience. So that makes it incredibly difficult to quantify. One of the best tangible examples I can give you is we have a plethora of pashminas in our restaurant. The idea is that if you see somebody that, you know, their body language might give you the impression that they're cold, you can go over and offer one. And not only can you offer something to help make them warm, but hopefully you have a color that's going to go with their outfit.

MONTAGNE: That is very much a luxury experience that you're describing.

ZIEBOLD: Yeah, absolutely. And again, that's exactly - when you get to that point of Michelin three-star is - it's an experience worth building a trip around.

MONTAGNE: Well, in a way, you're creating an art. In your experience, do chefs - and especially those who move up higher and higher in their creativity - have a particular temperament - maybe more sensitive or more neurotic?

ZIEBOLD: No, I don't think that you're necessarily more sensitive to criticism. I think that we ourselves become hypercritical of every detail. It can potentially come off that way because we are so hypercritical by nature that it may seem we are being more sensitive to something.

MONTAGNE: Has this sad death of this chef - has it led to any soul searching?

ZIEBOLD: For me, personally, yes. I'm not sure I would necessarily call it soul searching, but I guess it has caused me to reflect. And I guess the part that has become reflective for me is, you know, trying to make sure that what we do is sustainable - that we're going to be able to carry out and chase our vision and be in a position to chase our vision successfully for a really long time.

MONTAGNE: Eric Ziebold is the chef and owner of Kinship. His newest restaurant, Metier, will be opening in the coming weeks. Thank you very much for joining us.

ZIEBOLD: Absolutely, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.