In France he was known as the People's Chef, and now he was dead—by his own hand. Reportedly depressed by a cutting review in a French food guide, GaultMillau, and fearful that his flagship restaurant would be downgraded from three stars to two in Michelin's red guide—every good Gaul's gastronomic bible—Bernard Loiseau shot himself on Feb. 24. ("He knew the media so well," says friend Patrick O'Connell, a U.S. chef, "I believe he saw the writing on the wall.") At his funeral, thousands who couldn't squeeze into Saint Andoche basilica in the small Burgundy town of Saulieu packed cobblestone streets and watched the proceedings on a video feed. "Bernard was a star," says U.S. chef Gary Danko of his friend. "The impact would be like if Martha Stewart shot herself."

Like Stewart, the burly, affable Loiseau, 52, had become the engine of an empire. Not everyone could afford to be among the gourmets who waited up to three months for the privilege of spending some $125 per person (without wine) to dine at his inn La Côte d'Or. But most anyone could buy his vacuum-packed supermarket meals or order his kitchen gear online.

Recently, however, there were hints the father of three might have had too much on his plate. His suicide came just a week after GaultMillau slashed La Côte d'Or's rating from 19 (out of 20) to 17. "The economic impact of losing a star or points in the GaultMillau guide is staggering," says O'Connell. Observed Loiseau's widow, Dominique: "Exceptional people are often very fragile, real tightrope walkers who can sometimes get very low."

Ironically the new Michelin guide was published the day of Loiseau's funeral. In it, he receives three stars.