Director Christian Vincent offers a delightful film which is as light and fluffy; insubstantial and impressive, as a perfectly executed soufflé. Hortense Labourie (Catherine Frot) is content to be a chef in Périgord with a farm, a menagerie and an elderly uncle to look after, until she is summoned to Paris as the private chef to the President of France (Jean D’Ormesson). The ministers are so arrogant it would serve them right if she simply refused, but then we would have no film, so she accepts and enters this beautiful, formal world, and the gourmet extravaganza begins.
She is given a tour of the Palais de l'Élysée, including the spotless kitchens with all the latest equipment. She moves among gleaming copper pans, printed menus and steamed tablecloths, and is given masses of directions and tips on protocol, but no mention of food. The men in the staff kitchen are no help to her as they resent her position in the private kitchen – they are macho and rude and call her Du Barry (after the mistress of Louis XV) – so if she wants to learn what the president likes, she has to deduce it by trial and error. She studies what is left over on his plate to try and understand his preferences.
Initially Hortense cooks decadent meals such as Savoy cabbage, Scottish salmon, Loire carrots – “I like things to come from somewhere” – but when she is finally awarded an audience with the president he says he likes classic, rustic food and begs her to “cook like my grandmother did; give me the best of France.” He asks for simple and authentic dishes without decorations – “I want to taste things” – and she gives him clams, cream of asparagus soup, fruit and pistachio tart, and Beef Wellington (which is called boeuf en croûte in France).
She has a sous-chef, Nicolas Bauvois (Arthur Dupont) with whom she develops a cute relationship – she insists that he call her by her name, rather than ‘chef’. Catherine Frot’s Hortense is a beautiful middle-aged woman with a ready smile and a twinkling sense of humour, rather than a Hollywood bimbette who would get the role if this were an American film. Although the chemistry in the kitchen is charming and appealing, it is refreshingly free from sexuality. Nicolas shares her love for food and its creation and gives her a sounding board to express her culinary methods and opinions – “I talk through a recipe – I can’t help it.”
The narrative is based on the true story of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch who became the first female chef to a French president, Francoise Mitterand. In this film it is suggested that the president can talk for hours about food, and maybe it would have been better for him to do so instead of heading into politics. He and Hortense discuss old recipe books and the passion that went into writing them; they bemoan that no one writes like that anymore. Hortense believes that food should reveal individual character and is disappointed by a dish that is well-made but lacking in personality: “anyone could have made it.”
Insistent that she can source better food than that used in the main kitchens, she sets out to buy her own provisions and we are treated to scenes of specialist produce shops selling exclusively cheese, poultry or fish. She and Nicolas experiment and have fun in the kitchen with food and menus, exploring recipes and combinations. Hortense teases him that a pastry chef must measure precise quantities while cooks use instinctive dashes. We may not be able to taste it but the colours, textures and detail of the dishes are gloriously filmed supplying a generous portion of gastro-porn.
Her downfall comes partly at the hands of the main kitchen chef who is upset when he thinks she has muscled in on his territory. She is in charge of appetizers, mains and cheese; he takes care of dessert, and he questions the categorization of cream cheese which he insists she removes from the dishes served at a family dinner. For a country whose revolution is proverbially based on the distinction between bread and pastry – “Let them eat cake” – this seems apt. When she is called to account for the fact that her meals are three times as expensive as those from the main kitchen she counters, “I work with people who share a passion for excellence – it comes at a cost” and she has justification in her claim, “A cook is not an accountant; a cook is an artist”.
As well as the financial aspects and personal rivalries, Hortense must face the fact that as he ages, the President is forbidden rich food by his health advisors. There will be no more cheese, sauces, or rich or fat foods, and she sulks to Nicolas, “I hope you like working with fruit”. She must now run everything past his guards, which image is turned on its head when she has them running across the courtyard to ensure that dishes are delivered at the correct temperature. Her argument when she is told that she can still cook anything for President’s guests, but just not for the President himself, is that she wasn’t brought in to cook for ambassadors. Ultimately she cannot overlook her passion for the food for the sake of her position.
The film is framed by her experience on a French Antarctic base as a cook for the scientists and surveyors there. She runs by the beach and over the bleak countryside in an environment that couldn’t be further from the opulence of Parisian palaces. On her last day she tells the team that she has bought a truffle farm in New Zealand, combining her loves of the miracle and perfection of truffles with the beauty of virgin territory. Whether in decadent chateaux or primitive extremities, food is more than just physical sustenance. True fans of gastronomy will find much in this film to nourish the soul.