The Michelin guide was on Wednesday accused of covering up its alleged role in the suicide of leading French chef Bernard Loiseau.
Previously unseen documents suggested Michelin had told him it had serious reservations about the quality of his restaurant months before he shot himself.
Ten years ago, Loiseau was France’s most feted chef. The charismatic cook’s beaming face smiled from billboards, TV shows and recipe books. His restaurant, Le Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, Burgundy was a favourite with the late president François Mitterrand.
Robert de Niro would drop in by helicopter for his signature dish of frog’s legs with garlic purée and parsley sauce.
But on February 24, 2003, the chef finished his lunchtime service, rolled up his apron and drove home. Telling his ten-year old son – one of three children – to go and play outside, he went upstairs, locked the bedroom door and shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle, a present from his wife.
The following day, France was in shock and, within hours, a media storm erupted over what pushed this leading gastronomic ambassador to end his life.
His wife, Dominique, who took over the reins of the restaurant, described it as a “moment of madness” from a highly-strung “manic depressive” who was “capable of great moments of euphoria and periods of deep anxiety”. He was also steeped in debt after floating his culinary empire on the stock exchange and over-investing.
Loiseau was known to be obsessed with losing a Michelin star, saying it would cost him a “40 per cent” of his business.
But Paul Bocuse, the elder statesmen of French gastronomy, instantly pointed the finger at Michelin’s rival, Gaul&Millault, which had docked the chef two points to 17 out of 20 in its 2003 edition. “Bravo Gault&Millault, you won: your appraisal has cost the life of a man,” he exclaimed.
Next up for public condemnation was François Simon, Le Figaro magazine’s waspish and influential food critic, who had published an article shortly before Loiseau’s death citing Michelin sources as warning that the third star of his flagship restaurant was “legitimately under threat”.
This led another top chef, Jacques Pourcel, to designate Mr Simon as the “prime culprit” in pushing Loiseau to commit suicide.
Michelin denied ever threatening to pull a star, which Loiseau’s restaurant ended up keeping.
But on Wednesday, L’Express magazine published a confidential note penned by the legendary red guide’s then British head, Derek Brown, that suggests otherwise.
Although Mr Brown this week insisted he never had “any real problem” with Loiseau’s cooking bar “a few details, like the temperature of his soup”, minutes from his November 2002 meeting with the couple at his head office recount how he gave them a serious dressing down.
“I spoke of our concerns: irregularity, lack of soul, of recent character in the cuisine and readers’ mail that is VERY mixed in terms of quality,” he wrote.
“Visibly ‘shocked’, (Loiseau) took me seriously,” Mr Brown concluded. “We’ll see.”
Two days later, his wife sent a deeply apologetic response, promising to get their cuisine “back on track”. But Mr Loiseau apparently never recovered.
On Wednesday, Mr Simon said he felt vindicated after all these years as he had merely reported on this stark warning, which he had obtained from impeccable sources.
“Michelin did indeed envisage docking Bernard Loiseau a star. They wanted to pass me off as a killer, while Michelin exempted themselves of any responsibility,” he said.
“I was thrown to the dogs, treated as a murderer and still am by some. They needed a scapegoat,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
Derek Brown, Michelin director at the time, said: “There was no threat made to Bernard Loiseau of losing a star at any time. Michelin doesn’t threaten anybody.”
“He asked to see me. People who want to come and talk about their restaurant are very welcome,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
“The idea of telling him about the concerns we had about some of his cooking was in order to give him an opportunity to consider whether he wanted to do something about it, which he did, as it turned out.”
Michael Ellis, current director of Michelin told l’Express: “These types of meetings are part of daily life at Michelin. I’m not surprised such a meeting took place.” But he added: “We don’t summon chefs. We only receive ones who wish to see us.”