Downstairs kitchen comedy a French treat

Nanjing Night Net

Capitol Manuka, Palace Electric


For the French, food is no laughing matter, as we know, and their culinary arts have long been revered. However, as our own obsession with iron chefs, naked chefs, celebrity chefs and master chefs grows and grows, it is no longer clear any more that it’s just the French who obsess about food.

In this light and engaging souffle of a comedy from Christian Vincent, that screened during the recent French Film Festival and is now on general release, there are dishes galore from the French provincial cookbook, captured on camera in seductive close-up. The names of the best French wines, signature desserts and exotica are bandied around, so much so, that you feel you just have to alter travel plans and book that next holiday in France.

The kitchen goddess here is Hortense Laborie, played with aplomb by Catherine Frot, a chef and truffles specialist summoned from her farm in the provinces to provide the kind of spread the French president longs for, food like his grandmother used to make. Unfortunately the resident chefs at the Elysee Palace, an all-male team, give her the cold shoulder the moment she arrives, distinctly displeased by the new favourite in their midst. They nickname her Du Barry, after a mistress of King Louis XV, and SuperGran.

The indomitable Hortense is not one to be put down by this, and she can give as good as she gets. The comedy widens to parrying between the factions, the scramble for favours, the army of functionaries that has to respond instantly to presidential whim, and to new era bureaucrats concerned only with the bottom line. Less effective is the awkward, stiff character of the president himself, played by veteran journalist Jean d’Ormesson, someone personally acquainted with French presidents in his time. And even less effective is the clunky comedy the film tries to derive from a phoney-accented Australian television film crew trailing Hortense once she has quit the palace and taken a job in Antarctica.

Haute Cuisine is based on a book by Daniele Delpeuch, a formidable former chef to Francois Mitterand, president of France from 1981-1995. I remember Mitterand, the first socialist president, as colourful with a larger-than-life personality, and hadn’t heard of his predilections in food. Predilections in other areas, but not gastronomy.

Restricting the comedy to the goings-on among the palace staff downstairs without a hint of what was happening upstairs is a missed opportunity, especially given what we now know of Mitterand, his political skeletons in the closet, his affairs, and his mistress and daughter who were a state secret. Haute Cuisine could definitely have milked more from its insider perspective in the corridors of power, however it is still light, lively and engaging.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.