Haute Cuisine, the based-on-true-events French narrative film about the first female chef to serve as the private cook for the president of France, has a fantastic tagline: “He runs the country. She runs the kitchen. Together they serve with excellence.” The setup is sound. The King’s Speech meets Jiro Dreams of Sushi for Francophiles and foodies. It’s an impeccably shot, ingeniously cast film, but when it comes to story, the film falls pathetically short of its promising pitch.
The story begins in earnest when Hortense Laborie (intensely likable Catherine Frot) is plucked from relative culinary obscurity to serve as head chef in the private kitchen of Le Président François Mitterrand (Jean d’Ormesson) in the Élysée Palace. But Laborie does not fit in with the chefs in the “main kitchen”: They’re food snobs and fussbudgets; Laborie’s culinary idol is her grandmother. She is given a sous-chef, good-hearted goofball Nicolas Bauvois (Arthur Dupont), and the odd couple form an unbeatable team. She also develops an easy rapport and eventual friendship with the president.
After that, though, the story quickly becomes episodic. The truffles Laborie is outsourcing are too expensive! The president has to go on a diet, and Laborie can’t use sauce in her menus anymore! One of Laborie’s cheese dishes feels too much like a dessert, and that’s the main kitchen’s domain! These may have been the day-to-day hassles the film’s inspiration, Danièle Delpeuch, faced, but these small problems are no substitute for the real conflict and tension this film so desperately needs.
There is a flash-forward framing device that’s also problematic. Running through the film is the story of Laborie, a year after she quits her gig at the Élysée Palace, serving as chef for a small research lab in Antarctica. This B-story could have been lifted entirely, and the film would have been better for it.
There’s a good story buried in this film. Unfortunately, it’s just buried too deep.