When Michelin-starred chef Benoit Violier—whose Restaurant de L'Hotel de Ville in Switzerland was recently crowned the world's best—died of an apparent suicide on January 31, the international food industry was saddened and stunned. The death is still a mystery, but speculation has centered around the enormous stresses of restaurant life, especially for ambitious chefs whose careers can take off or plummet based on their rankings in certain guides. But news reports are now suggesting Violier was facing more than his usual share of crushing pressures: namely, an international wine scam that may have robbed his restaurant of millions of dollars.
The Switzerland-based business magazine Bilan is reporting that in 2015, a company called Private Finance Partners—which declared bankruptcy in November—allegedly sold rare bottles priced in the thousands of dollars each to top European restaurateurs, including French superstar chefs Fredy Girardet and Philippe Rochat. Wines included Burgundy's Domaine Henri Jayer, which according to Bilan can fetch up to $300,000 per case. The bottles were never delivered—and in many cases multiple restaurants paid for the same exact bottles—cheating the victims out of sums in the millions.
In the case of Violier, the scam reportedly caused nearly $2 million in losses and was rumored to be on its way to crippling his restaurant.
Others are denying those allegations: The Telegraph quotes Violier's friend and restaurant shareholder Andre Kudelski as saying, "The restaurant was absolutely not touched and the Violier family had nothing to do with this affair. The restaurant is full. It is better than in any previous year." He added, "The restaurant has a very solid financial base.”
If this situation sounds at all familiar, here's why: Bilan likens it to the Bernard Madoff case, which didn't involve wine—but was a similarly grandiose ponzi scheme that targeted huge celebrity fortunes. The Violier story, unfortunately, has had a particularly tragic ending.
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