Featuring: Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean d’Ormesson, Hippolyte Girardot
Directors: Christian Vincent
Screenplay: Christian Vincent, Étienne Comar
Australian release date: Thursday, 25th April
One-word verdict: unsatisfying
Renowned chef Hortense Laborie is astonished when the President of the Republic appoints her to the Élysée Palace as his personal cook. Despite jealousy and resentment from other kitchen staff, the indomitable Hortense quickly establishes herself. Her cooking acumen and the authenticity of her dishes soon seduce the President, but the corridors of power are littered with traps…
Based on the extraordinary true story of President Francois Mitterand’s private cook.
It’s lucky that the main interest in Haute Cuisine lies in the glimpse it gives us into the Elysee Palace, French bureaucracy and protocol, and of course the food, because there’s little drama or character development in this slightly fictionalised true story.
Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot), who had established a successful culinary school for international visitors in her home in Perigord, accepts a position as personal chef to the president of the French Republic. When officials from the Palace whisk her off to the railway station for a quick trip to Paris for an interview, they’re running late, so they get the train to wait. You don’t turn down a job offer from people with that kind of power!
Hortense takes over the private kitchen at the palace, much to the chagrin of the army of male chefs who work from the main kitchen providing meals for official functions. She’s decisive and undaunted, but negotiating the intricacies of protocol (requiring advance notice of menus and scrupulous accounting for costs), dealing with the hostile and spitefully rumour-mongering staff, and being on call 24/7 wear her down. The last straw comes when the President’s health problems require – incroyable! – that fat be eliminated from his diet.
The story is told in flashback from her later job as cook on an Antarctic base, where an inquisitive “Australian” journalist, Mary (Arly Jover) wonders at the story behind the enigmatic woman who serves up gourmet delights to an appreciative band of scientists. Mary, when speaking English, has a ludicrous accent that is indescribable except to say that it in no way resembles Australian, although she makes a fair fist of pretending to speak French poorly. Her role is completely superfluous anyway, as Hortense, far from opening up to her, actively avoids her, as though she has something to hide. Which she doesn’t really, as her reveries show.
The potential conflict with the male chefs plays out in flashback as snide sabotage on their part, and feisty repartee on hers; a scene where Hortense sweeps a table clean of utensils is simply ridiculous. And her profligacy with the kitchen budget and cronyism in the sourcing of produce (which doesn’t seem entirely admirable) is hardly enough to justify her secretive attitude.
Haute Cuisine shines, though, in the scenes of food preparation. Hortense speaks her recipes aloud as she cooks, and also instructs her sous-chef in techniques handed down to her from her grandmother. (This is very handy for the audience.) Her brief from the President, with whom she establishes an intimacy based on their mutual appreciation of fine produce and good cooking, is “Give me the best France can offer!” and this is completely in accord with her own desire and practice.
The food looks divine: cabbage stuffed with salmon sounds ordinary, but Hortense’s choux farci au saumon looks spectacularly juicy and flavoursome; the boeuf en croute de sel perfectly crusty and beefy; the St Honore dessert delicately sweet; and there’s foie gras, always foie gras. All is served on beautiful crockery, which Hortense inspects when it’s returned to the kitchen: a clean plate is the best feedback she can get, as she’s excluded from the dining room.
Co-writers Christian Vincent and Étienne Comar based their script on the story of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, who for nearly two years in the 1990s served as personal cook to President Mitterand, a known gastronome who hankered for the flavours of the (excellent) home kitchen. Delpeuch also went to the Antarctic, fighting for a job from which her age supposedly disqualified her. There’s a lot to the real Daniele (who had never cooked a casserole before she married at the age of nineteen) that doesn’t come through in the character of Hortense, who, though working against stacked odds and serving up beautiful food, never quite succeeds in being sympathique.
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