NICE, France — Why kill yourself with a shotgun one month after you’re voted the best chef in the world?
That’s the mystery that’s taken hold around the famed Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in the picturesque Swiss village of Crissier, where 44-year-old chef Benoît Violier apparently committed suicide at home on Sunday.
He loved hunting and published just last year a book on cooking “feathered game.” (The prestigious daily Le Monde waxed ecstatic over his snow partridge in a wine reduction with tiny Roscoff onions.) The gun that he appears to have used to kill himself reportedly was one of those he used for game.
Swiss police have opened an investigation into the case.
Violier’s restaurant was named the best out of 1,000 restaurants in 48 countries in December by France’s La Liste. Such was the prestige surrounding the award, it was presented at the French foreign ministry.
The chef was in the prime of his life. Handsome, charismatic, said to be calmer in temperament than most world-class cooks, he was married to a beautiful woman, Brigitte, who left her job in cosmetics to work at his side at their highly sought after, three-star restaurant near Lausanne that was normally booked up four months in advance. The couple had a 12-year-old son and an equally photogenic dog, Mac Queen.
So why did the French-born Violier, who achieved what most would consider the pinnacle of professional and personal success in this world, apparently take a gun and shoot himself on Sunday, blowing to bits a self-made universe that was the envy of all who knew him?
So far, no one has any idea. ”Late in the afternoon, police went to Crissier where they discovered at his home the body of Mr. Benoît Violier,” Swiss police said in a cryptic statement.
Violier, who obtained Swiss citizenship two years ago, had been expected in Paris on Monday for the unveiling of the latest Michelin guide where, as expected, his restaurant retained its three stars, or, as the French call them, its three macarons.
Even when he talked about his childhood, Violier gave no hint of unhappiness. In an interview with the Swiss website Illustre in September 2015, Violiet described his idyllic upbringing near the seaside city of La Rochelle in France, and how his mother encouraged her kids to stay away from the TV and enjoy nature. Violiet didn't even take his first train ride until he was 17.
“To this day, when I have free time, I walk in the forest with my springer spaniel Mac Queen,” Violier said.
“Sometimes I would tell my mother that Sharon Stone or the king of Spain would come to my restaurant. She didn’t exactly understand who they were but she was very proud.”
“I go to sleep with cooking, I wake up to cooking,” Violier said during an interview with the Swiss TV network RTS in December 2014. But he also said that customers were surprised at how calm his kitchen was and he attributed part of that to modern chefs not using or drinking as much alcohol as they had in the past.
The only hints that all was not well in Violier’s seemingly perfect world were the mentions he made more than once last year about losing his biological father as well as his mentor, Philippe Rochat, who was the second of only three chefs at l’Hôtel de Ville de Crissier. Violier had taken over running the restaurant from Rochat in 2012.
Rochat died after reportedly “fainting” while riding a bicycle on July 8, 2015. Violier said he had, in effect, lost “two fathers” in 2015. (In an odd twist, Rochat’s wife, Franziska Rochat-Moser, a world-class runner who won the New York City marathon in 1997, had died at the age of 35 during an avalanche in the Swiss Alps while skiing in 2002.)
On Monday, Twitter was awash in heartbroken tweets by some of the world’s most famous chefs. Paul Bocuse, Pierre Gagnaire, Jean Francois Piege were just a few who remembered Violier’s talent and charm. “A great chef, a great man, a gigantic talent,” Bocuse tweeted. Three-star chef Marc Veyrat tweeted that he was “destroyed” by the news of Violier’s death, saying the “planet has been orphaned by this exceptional chef.”
But some of the most poignant sentiments came from recent customers, so thrilled to have just met their hero and flabbergasted to hear of his sudden, inexplicable death.
“We were just there for a birthday lunch on Friday,” Ursula Kappeler, owner of the Swiss-based Sense of Delight epicurean service, told The Daily Beast on Monday, “We met him and his wife. They were both such a lovely couple. You could not see a thing wrong. They seemed on top of the world. Maybe there was pressure on him but he was just named the best chef. He seemed in very good shape physically. We are still so in shock.”
Littli Kewkacha of the Japanese dessert cafe Kyo Roll En in Bangkok was one of many chefs and foodies who traversed the globe for a dinner at the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville Crissier and said the memory of his visit still thrills him.
“Benoît really took time and effort to invite me into his kitchen because he knew I came all the way from Bangkok and was a keen foodie,” Kewkacha told The Daily Beast. “He spent almost an hour explaining the history, the philosophy of his cooking, even with his limited English. I remember the day I went, his young sous-chef just won a cooking award and he was genuinely happy and celebrating the success of his team. The mood inside the grand kitchen was jovial and warm. He really struck me as a family man, who loved, and was loved by, everyone around him.”