Don't expect life-or-death drama in "Haute Cuisine." One of the biggest points of tension stems from a kerfuffle over cream cheese. Yet, this French film, based on the true story of the French president's first female chef, offers plenty of simple pleasures.
The film opens in 1993, as Hortense Laborie (based on real-life chef Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch and played by Catherine Frot) is wrapping up a year cooking at a research base in Antarctica. A documentarian learns that Hortense once worked at the Elysee Palace for former French President Francois Mitterrand and wants to hear more, but the prickly chef has no interest in going down that path. We understand somewhat why, as the movie jumps back four years to the day when Hortense lands the palace job.
She doesn't ask for it. Rather, she is approached unexpectedly by the chief of staff, who wants her to become the president's personal chef, cooking for smaller gatherings. No sooner does Hortense hesitantly accept the job than she finds herself butting heads with the chauvinistic head chef (in charge of larger banquets) and his all-male staff.
Early on, the movie effectively conveys Hortense's loneliness, as she stands looking out of place in the palace's bustling kitchen. But mostly the tone remains light, boosted by a playful score. The president, who takes a shine to Hortense, asks her to cook simply -- and with absolutely no edible flowers -- and she embraces the task, making such spectacular dishes as salmon-stuffed cabbage, boeuf en croute and St. Honore cakes made from cream puffs and whipped cream.
Frot manages the tough trick of playing someone who's both standoffish and likable. The movie is simply about what happens when a woman tries to navigate the politics of the palace kitchen.
"Haute Cuisine" is a tasty treat that's not entirely filling but perfectly enjoyable all the same.
In French with subtitles.
Stephanie Merry writes for The Washington Post.
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