HAUTE CUISINE (Les Saveurs Du Palais). Starring Catherine Frot, Jean d’Ormesson, and Arthur Dupont. Directed by Christian Vincent. Rated M (Coarse language). 95 min.
This French sub-titled movie tells the story in semi-biographical style of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, who was a private chef to the French President, Francois Mitterand. It is a fictional film based loosely on the life experiences of Delpeuch. In the film, she appears as Hortense Laborie, and her role is played by Catherine Frot. French writer, Jean d’Ormesson, dean of the Academie francaise, plays President Mitterand.
The title of the movie refers to the cuisine of high class establishments, fine-dining restaurants, and luxury hotels in France. It symbolises the meticulous preparation of exceptional food, high-quality presentation, and exquisite wines to match the excellence of the food. Over time, grand cooking was described in France in other ways - as “nouvelle cuisine” and “cuisine classique” - but the term “haute cuisine” maintained its currency, especially among the great Chefs of Europe.
Daniele Delpeuch was the first female Chef to cook in France’s Elysee Palace, as the private cook to a President. The idea of a female Chef annoyed in particular the all-male team, which staffed the main kitchen, but Delpeuch never wavered in her passion and commitment to quality cooking, which to her was all-important. Aside from being an exceptional cook, Daniele comes across in the film (and obviously in real life) as a likeable, determined woman, who always managed to put bigoted males in their rightful place. It was because she did this that she talked her way assertively into the position of chief cook for 60 fortunate men at a research station in Antarctica, some years after she left Mitterand's employ.
This is a film that exposes one to wonderful dishes, never likely to be encountered in ordinary life. Mitterrand wanted Daniele to cook simply like his grandmother. She agreed, and created gastronomic masterpieces for Mitterrand to enjoy simply. One of his favourite dishes, cooked and served by her, was whole cabbage, stuffed with salmon, wrapped in cheesecloth and dipped into salmon stock, served with goose-fat stewed carrots. The dish was “comforting”.
The film is filled with wonderful comic touches and human, tender moments. Daniele, for example, insisted on beating the bureaucrats in the Palace by drawing her food from the best of farm produce, and hired people to take trains to deliver mushrooms and truffles to her kitchen. She battled “adversity” by fighting against the compromises forced on her by those around her, who were over-conscientious about the President’s health.
This is a film which is not just for food-fanatics. It is an unpretentious comedy-drama that exposes one to quality cooking of the highest kind by an indomitable woman, who left Antarctica to go to her truffle farm in New Zealand. It contains tiny human dramas, thankfully no romantic sub-plots, and food-catastrophes that were always averted. Grandmotherly in style herself, the dishes Daniele cooks are wondrous, and the film is full of happy accidents that result in dishes being trialled with her assistant, Nicolas Bauvois (Arthur Dupont), to be better than either hoped for. Like those we all know, she liked to check on how much was left on a plate. If something was not eaten by the President, for example, she wanted to know why.
There is not a lot in this movie that dramatises the characters of those in it. We learn little about their motivations, private aspirations, or personal ambitions, and power politics are always secondary. Jean d’Ormesson misses the character of Mitterand, and the movie flits distractingly between France and Antarctica, but the spirit of Delpeuch is beguiling, and her cooking, recipes, and food preparation are superb.
The movie, as one says, is “deliciously French”, but not to be viewed after an ordinary, home-cooked meal, however simple it might have been.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out April 28th 2013.