Ever been to the Crozet Islands?
Ever heard of the Crozet Islands?
No? Neither have I. In any event they’re located in a sub-antarctic archipelago in the South Indian Ocean. That would be the really, really southern part of the Indian Ocean. Yes, I wondered why a film, entitled Haute Cuisine, or in France it was called Les Saveurs du Palais, ostensibly about the woman who cooked for Francois Mitterand, the two term President of France, would begin there. Sadly, we never quite find out. It remains a mystery.
As the film opens, we learn that Hortense Laborie, is the outgoing chef at the French Research station in the Crozets. Actually, we weren’t really in Antarctica, as Reykholar, Iceland, was the geographical stand-in. So Laborie is the outgoing and beloved chef.
Flashing back a number years, we follow from a helicopter as an automobile wends its way through the back country roads of the Perigord Region of France. It’s rather exhilarating to do this. But it is not a new thing in films. Alfred Hitchcock did this in the film To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in 1955, and more recently, we followed Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance from the air as he drove towards the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980).
But I digress. This car had been dispatched from France’s Palais de l’Elysee on the Rue du Fauborg Saint-Honore, in Paris to pick up Hortense Laborie, and bring her back to Paris. It seems that she has been recommended for the job of Head Chef in The President of France’s Private Kitchen.
Now Laborie was not a chef of international renown, but within French cooking circles, the regional cuisine of the Perigord was considered classic, and was well-loved. Especially by Mitterand. So she’s been called to duty, and she must take on the job.
Only cooking is never just cooking. Especially when you are working so close to the top of the country’s government. The corridors of power, just above the basement kitchen, are not the only minefields that Laborie must navigate through. It is even worse downstairs in the kitchens themselves.
All of The President of the Republic’s private meals, family meals, and non-political meals would be her responsibility. Of course, she was resented by some of the chefs within the Private Kitchen, and then even more so by the staff and head Chef of the Main Kitchen. The Main Kitchen was responsible for the State Dinners and for feeding the staff to the tune of 7,000 meals a month.
But Laborie was a tough and cool customer. She possessed an indomitable spirit. She was also a great chef. Quickly she side-stepped many of the traps, pitfalls, and stumbling blocks purposely placed in her way. After just one luncheon with the heads of the Main Kitchen, she calmly announced to the Liaison between the President’s office and the kitchens – That is the last time I will dine with those ‘machos’.
Yes, though you may not have known or thought of this, but the world of haute cuisine has just as much intrigue, jealousy, and backstabbing, as any corporate or academic environment anywhere on the globe. There’s also the stifling protocols, and adherence to the traditions of government – none of which pleased Hortense, or us.
And this is before we even consider such things as budgets, cost of the foods, staff headcount, and so forth. Not only did Laborie have to deal with the resentment of those who were passed over for the position, but she also had to deal with the bean counters upstairs who tried to nickel and dime her at every turn. She wanted the best, and the freshest. They wanted cost controls.
All of that, is about a half of the film. The other half is the preparation of the food, each meal more glorious than the previous one. Beautifully filmed with more mouth-watering shots than you will be able to count. There’s an inside joke about this film – do not see this film on an empty stomach. As good as the food looks, and as enticing as its preparation seems – all you will able to do is look. So before seeing the film be sure you are well fortified.
Okay, the film is great to look at, and contains a supreme performance by Catherine Frot as Hortense. This is truly a memorable film visually. The problem is the story is incomplete. We will be able to piece together why Hortense Laborie finally walked away from the number one job in the world of haute cuisine in France. After all the film opened in Antarctica then flashed back to before she took the job cooking for Mitterand, so there’s no spoiler that she left.
But we never do learn why she took the job in Antarctica, and beyond that, we never learn why she left that job too. By the way, this film was based on the real life story of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch. Overall, the wonderfully visuals are undermined to a degree because we keep cutting back to Antarctica where the story is far less interesting, cooking aside. In effect the film is running two stories which is a distraction. But everything in between, from the truffles, to the snails, from the chowder to the fruit torts, and the endless array of wines and fromage, was simply – delicious. Three point zero is the rating.
This film is currently playing here in Sarasota, and likely a good many indie and art houses across the country thanks to folks at The Weinstein Company. However, if it isn’t playing nearby, you can stream it in via Netflix. Are you tempted? Try this petit sample.