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Les saveurs du palais

Haute Cuisine

 

From the acclaimed writer of Women on the Sixth Floor and Of Gods and Men comes a film that is “long on flavour and deliciously French.”

The Page Turner‘s fabulous Catherine Frot plays the role of a lifetime as Hortense Laborie, a renowned chef from Perigord. Hortense is astonished when the President of the Republic (Jean d’Ormesson) appoints her his personal cook, responsible for creating all his meals at the Elysée Palace.

Despite jealous resentment from the other kitchen staff, Hortense quickly establishes herself, thanks to her indomitable spirit. The authenticity of her cooking soon seduces the President, but the corridors of power are littered with traps…

Haute Cuisine is based on the extraordinary true story of President François Mitterrand’s private cook, Danièle Delpeuch. It is a must-see film for anyone who loves France: its cuisine, its traditions, and its cinema.

Click here for the trailer with subtitles 

Click for the “bande-annonce” without subtitles  

Synopsis et détails

Hortense Laborie est une cuisinière réputée qui vit dans le Périgord. A sa grande surprise, le Président de la République la nomme responsable de ses repas personnels au Palais de l'Élysée. Malgré les jalousies des chefs de la cuisine centrale, Hortense s’impose avec son caractère bien trempé. L’authenticité de sa cuisine séduira rapidement le Président, mais dans les coulisses du pouvoir, les obstacles sont nombreux…

Haute Cuisine is an enchanting film about food

Review by: Evan Williams  From: The Australian.  Image: Catherine Frot (as the chef) and Jean d'Ormesson (as Francois Mitterrand) in the film Haute Cuisine 

Haute Cuisine is an enchanting film about food - the joys of cooking and pleasures of eating.

And not surprisingly, it's French, reflecting the common belief (dear to the French themselves) that Western culinary tradition, indeed Western civilisation, reached its highest state of refinement in France, where cooking is ranked among the fine arts. Haute Cuisine may be the best film about food since that austere Swedish masterpiece Babette's Feast. And it seems only natural that the heroine of both films should be a Frenchwoman.

Haute Cuisine is the story of Daniele Delpeuch, the only woman to have cooked at the Elysee Palace, the official residence of the French president. In the film she is known as Hortense Laborie (by which name I'll refer to her), and is played with great charm by Catherine Frot. For two years she prepared food for Francois Mitterrand, who treated meals at the Elysee as both convivial rituals and a celebration of French cultural achievement in many fields. Much of the film is shot in the Elysee itself, including the kitchens where Hortense worked. It was not an easy time. There was a tightly guarded hierarchy of chefs, sous-chefs and other ranks on staff, who saw Hortense as an interloper and resented her ready access to the president. When the tensions proved too much for her she left to work as a cook at a French scientific base in the Antarctic. And it is here that the film begins and ends, with Hortense's time at the palace covered in extended flashbacks.

 

As played by Jean d'Ormesson, the president is the very embodiment of mischievous, twinkly eyed Gallic charm, and looks nothing like the photos I have seen of Mitterrand himself. Good socialist that he was, Mitterrand believed -- or so he says -- in the virtues of honest home cooking and plain, simple food.

But don't expect Hortense to serve him ham rolls or sausages. Every dish is an elaborate confection of exotic sauces and decorative trimmings, usually with a quota of oysters, truffles and pate de fois gras. In the kitchen scenes Hortense is run off her feet, tasting something here, stirring something there, all the while directing orders to bustling subordinates: pour in the whisked egg whites when the cream is hot, add a sprig of sage when the chicken is still bubbling. Simple fare indeed.

We have no difficulty believing the real Mitterrand was a serial seducer, and some of the palace staff are suspicious of the friendship that develops between him and Hortense. When more prurient inquiries are directed to an Australian TV journalist making a film about Hortense's career, she has a neat retort: "It's not the same in Australia. We don't have a president." But what irks Hortense beyond endurance is the scrutiny of her travel expenses by palace bean-counters and a demand that she cut down on rich, high-calorie food for the sake of the president's health.

Mitterrand was hardly an abstemious man. There are several well-attested accounts of his last meal, eaten a few days before his death from cancer in January 1996. This consisted of 30 Marennes oysters, with fois gras and capon, washed down with local sauternes.

But the piece de resistance was an ortolan bunting, a greenish-yellow songbird about the size of a sparrow. It was considered by many chefs the ultimate delicacy, the very soul of French cuisine. The bird would be kept in a darkened cage and force-fed millet until its body was close to bursting. It would be then be drowned alive in armagnac, a French brandy, before being plucked, roasted and served whole, to be eaten bones and all.

When I read of this disgusting ritual while writing this review, my first thought was to think less of Vincent's film and still less of Francois Mitterrand. But then, most of the food we eat involves animal cruelty. The ortolan is now a protected species in France and there is no way that Hortense - the kindest of souls - would have served such a dish to anyone.

Frot gives one of the most engaging performances I have seen in a French film. Though its structure is a little awkward, Haute Cuisine is spirited, funny and thoroughly entertaining. The Michelin guide would surely give it three hats. I award it my cordon bleu. And for dinner I'll have a burger and chips.

Haute Cuisine (M), limited release