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 Danièle 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 Élysée Palace for former French President François 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. Thankfully, she works in a separate kitchen with her sous-chef, the delightful Nicolas (Arthur Dupont).
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 croûte and St. Honorécakes made from cream puffs and whipped cream. And Hortense is way ahead of the locavore trend, enraging a palace bean-counter over her exorbitant expenses for truffles, meat and delicacies from nearby farms.
Frot manages the tough trick of playing someone who’s both standoffish and likable. Hortense isn’t easily amused or benevolently quirky, the way so many female characters can be. She’s serious, but her passion for recipes and fresh produce proves appealing. “Haute Cuisine” also strays from the typical formula because it’s devoid of a romantic subplot. The movie is simply about what happens when a woman tries to navigate the politics of the palace kitchen.
“Haute Cuisine” provides no huge revelations or profound messages, but it is sweetly and consistently engaging — a tasty treat that’s not entirely filling but perfectly enjoyable all the same.
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains language. In French with subtitles. 95 minutes.