Snow was already falling in Crissier, Switzerland as the first customers arrived at the picturesque and famed Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville outside Lausanne Friday evening. By 9 p.m., the dining room was full.
“Nous sommes complet comme d’habitude,” said Frederique, who has worked at the three-starred restaurant, named the best in the world in December. She meant the dining room was packed—as it has been for years.
“The ambiance is convivial and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves,” Frederique, who did not want to give her last name, told the Daily Beast.
Longtime restaurant manager Alessandro Egidi was busy attending to customers and “the chef,” she said, was in the kitchen, whipping up some of the trademark house specialties such as oysters served warm with champagne and Imperial Oscietra Caviar—and thick slices of blue lobster from the Guernsey islands with black truffles.
But the chef, of course, was not Benoit Violier, whose genius won him the title of the world’s best in La Liste, France’s rankings of the world’s 1,000 best restaurants, published in December. He had worked at the restaurant for 17 years and taken over as head chef in 2012.
Violier, 44, apparently shot himself with one of his own hunting rifles at his home on Jan. 31 in what police have ruled a suicide. His wife and business partner Brigitte was out to lunch with the couple’s 12-year-old son Romain. Brigitte and another person eventually found Violier’s body.
The new head chef in the kitchen Friday night was the restaurant’s longtime sous-chef Franck Giovannini. Giovannini was named Violier’s successor just a few days after Violier’s funeral on Feb. 5 at the Lausanne Cathedral, attended by more than 1500 people, among them some of the most storied names in haute cuisine. Giovannini and Violier had known and then worked together for almost two decades.
Giovannini’s promotion, as announced on the restaurant’s website this week by Violier’s widow, Brigitte, , was both surreal and direct:
“Giovannini has taken over the position of Chef de Cuisine from Benoit Violier, a natural transition as he is continually looking for ways to develop his capabilities.”
A restaurant source said Mrs. Violier, while remaining mainly in seclusion at home, had insisted the restaurant would open just two days after Violier’s death. She met with the staff the day after Violier’s death and said “the show must go on,” Agence France Presse reported.
“She is very strong,” the source told the Daily Beast. “She is keeping things together for her son and the restaurant the way Benoit would have wanted.”Despite theories ranging from the pressures of being one of the world’s top chefs to financial problems due to Violier’s possible involvement in a local alleged wine scam, neither his widow, his family in France or Swiss police have come up with a reason or motive. Swiss police told the Daily Beast Friday the case was still under investigation.
“We still do not know and I wonder if we ever will,” Frédy Girardet, the great Swiss chef who first opened the Crissier restaurant in 1971 and ran it until 1996, told the Daily Beast Friday.
Brigitte Violier told the Swiss media outlet L‘Illustré after Violier’s funeral that she was shocked and confounded by her husband’s suicide and said there was no “rational explanation.”
“He had everything—we had everything,” she told the Swiss weekly. She said she saw no signs of strange behavior from her husband prior to his death.
The Swiss magazine Bilan reported that Violier may have been one of the chefs targeted in an alleged vintage wine scam involving a company called Private Finance Partners. Since July, Swiss prosecutors have been investigating what appears to be a Ponzi type scheme in which local restaurants paid up to $40,000 a bottle for expensive wines that the company apparently did not deliver. Violier himself was not guilt of any wrongdoing and if anything was a victim, Bilan said.
Mrs. Violier called the Bilan report “100 percent false.” She said the report was “one hundred percent false in substance and 100 percent false in the details.” She said the restaurant’s financial statust was solid.
She also said she had no intention of quitting the restaurant.
“We built this project together,” she said. “I do not intend to abandon it.”