Whisked from her idyllic farm with the promise of a job cooking for a high-level government official, it is only when Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) gets to Paris that she learns the position will actually involve being the private chef for French president Francois Mitterand. She has a moment of faint surprise, but only a moment. The job offer is a bolt from the blue, but she knows she’s up for it.
Based on the true story of the first woman to be the president’s chef, Haute Cuisine alternates between Hortense’s time in the palace and a later spell as the inscrutable but beloved head chef on an Antarctic research station. In a clunky plot device at odds with the rest of the film’s unhurried feel, an Australian journalist (Arly Jover, doing a deplorable accent) is making a documentary about the station and tries to unravel the enigma of Hortense, including why she left her high-profile role for such an unlikely and isolated outpost.
Not unlike last year’s similarly foodie-friendly Step Up to the Plate, Haute Cuisine is almost defiantly low-key, offering little in the way of revelation but instead opting for a detailed, quiet character study and a wealth of lovingly filmed food preparation scenes.
Initially feeling isolated in her position, Hortense finds herself ill at ease in the rarified surrounds of the Elysse palace, all cavernous rooms and chilly stylishness. She is unsure of the tastes of who she is cooking for, is eyed suspiciously from the chefs in the much larger public kitchen and has running battles with bean-counting bureaucrats who can’t understand the time and money she pours into sourcing the finest truffles and foie gras.
Eventually she does meet Mitterand (played with sparkly eyed verve by Jean d’Ormesson, making his film debut at age 86) and the pair bond over the heartfelt, rustic food of his childhood. Working with the timid but capable sous chef Nicholas (Arthur Dupont) she becomes a favourite of the ageing president, only increasing the jealousy of her male counterparts.
Haute Cuisine is a small story but it is an interesting historical vignette, and it is to the film’s infinite credit that it does not overstay its welcome a minute.
Orginally appeared in: Concrete Playground