Movie Review: Les saveurs du palais (Haute Cuisine in English)
This charming movie is based on the true story of a woman who served as personal chef to the French president Francois Mitterrand. As Danièle Laborie arrives at the Elysee palace accompanied by suited men in a limousine, she thinks there must be some mistake. Why has she, an untrained cook from the countryside who runs a small French cooking school for foreigners, been chosen for such a formal position? Her insecurities quickly dissipate, however, as we see signs of the polite but unwavering self-assuredness that she will bring to the job. First she requests an unorthodox meeting with the president in order to discuss what he “likes to eat,” a curious question for these men in suits, with their concern for protocol and palace procedure. As she leaves her first seated lunch with her colleagues from the “main kitchen,” (the large area where chefs trained in the fanciest schools prepare the formal state meals) she says to her assistant, “that’s the first and last time I eat with those machos.”
As time goes on, she learns that Mitterrand shares her passion for the traditional regional foods of France, and wants nothing more than to be served simple food that his grandmother would have cooked. He reveals to her that as a child, he read cookbooks with great passion, even committing some pages to heart as one might poetry. At that moment, Danièle understands perfectly what the president wants from her and proceeds to disregard palace norms trying to deliver it- calling up aging farmers instead of the regular suppliers, overspending on artisanal products, and ruffling the feathers of those in the main kitchen. Through the meals she sends to the dining room, the two form an affectionate relationship that lies completely outside the world of politics.
One of the things I loved about the movie was the way that it shows different ways of conceiving of the act of culinary creation. On one side is the masculine-dominated world of professional chefs, with well-crafted and intellectualized dishes suitable for fine restaurant tables. On the other is a woman trying to come into that world with something very different- home-style dishes that will recall childhood, jog memories, and honor the loving labor of family cooks past. In an interview with France Culture, the woman whose life the film is based on calls this “la cuisine du souvenir,” or the cooking of memory.
Yet she is a woman who stands her ground, and who would rather work on her own terms in anonymity than be controlled by others. In the end, the palace becomes too confining. The beginning of the end comes when yet another set of suit-clad bureaucrats arrives out of the blue and dictates to Danièle a rigid new dietary regime for the president, a response no doubt to his failing health. Having won against palace protocol and haute cuisine pomp, she finally loses to the medicalization of food in the 1980s, which, perhaps naively (or even arrogantly), recommended abandoning traditional cooking wisdom.
A film about a political figure and yet devoid of politics, it is mostly a portrait of a woman with a passion for the tastes and traditions of rural France, and a president who broke with tradition in order to bring her into the inner sanctum of political power. We might think of her as an early disciple of the food movement that promotes a closer relationship to the land and a return to a more intimate and meaningful relationship to the food we eat. When she is asked for the rundown of her first menu, she announces, under the glaring pressure of the President’s social secretary, “Chou farci au saumon d’ecosse; et carottes du val de Loire. J’aime bien quand les choses viennent de quelque part.” (“Cabbage stuffed with Scottish salmon, and carrots from the Loire valley. I prefer when things come from someplace.”)
In that spirit, I offer you a meal that pulls on some of my personal favorite traditional French country recipes. The first is a salad that can be found in almost every restaurant in Lyon, and it one of my all time favorite salads. It is a play of contrasts between the bitter greens, the sharp, mustardy dressing, the smoky bacon and smooth, creamy egg yolks. Second is a take on coq au vin from my mother-in-law, and it’s a cinch to put together any night of the week. The chicken is stewed for a short time in white wine, and green olives give a briny punch at the end. Last, I give you one of my all time favorite desserts, which I often make for holidays and when entertaining. It is simple, magnificently beautiful, and wonderfully delicious. I guarantee shock and awe from your guests when you put it on the table.
Salade Lyonnaise (recipe adapted from Lucy Schnucks for the Eat-In Ethnic)
- 1 lb frisée, mixed greens, or baby kale
- 3/4 lb thick sliced bacon, cut into 1/2 inch crosswise strips
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large shallots, chopped finely
- 5 tbsp wine vinegar
- 1 heaping tbsp Dijon mustard
- pinch of granulated sugar
- 4 eggs
- White vinegar
- Salt and freshly cracked pepper
- Croutons (homemade or store-bought)
Put mixed greens in large salad bowl. Cook bacon in a skillet until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the olive oil to the pan and reduce heat to medium low. Add shallots and cook until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add vinegar and mustard to the skillet and bring just to a boil, stirring, then turn off heat.
Meanwhile, bring about 2 inches of water to a boil in a small sauce pan and add about a tablespoon of white vinegar. One at a time, break eggs into a shallow bowl and slip them into the boiling water. Cover the pot and remove from heat. Cook eggs for 3 to 4 minutes, just until the white is set and the yolk has filmed over. Remove each egg with a slotted spoon and drain briefly on a paper towel.
Add the bacon to the greens. If necessary, gently reheat dressing, then pour over greens (they should wilt just a bit), toss and season with salt and pepper to taste. Top each portion with a poached egg, croutons, and pepper and serve.
Poulet au vin blanc et aux olives vertes (Chicken with white wine and green olives)
- 1.5- 2 lbs boneless chicken meat, cut into chunks
- all purpose flour
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 tbsp oil or butter
- 1/2 cup pitted, canned green olives
- 6-8 button mushrooms, sliced
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 cup white wine
- 1/4 cup light cream
- pinch of dried thyme
- salt and pepper
Toss chicken in flour and shake to remove excess. In a large skillet, brown chicken in oil or butter over high heat and remove. Add sliced onion and fry for 2-3 minutes in the pan. Next add wine and chicken broth to cover and stir with a wooden spoon to remove brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add mushrooms and thyme. Simmer on low, covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Add green olives, cream, salt and pepper to taste, and cook for an addition 2-3 minutes.
Tarte aux pommes alsacienne
- 1 recipe pâte sablée
- 3 large fuji or gala apples
- 4 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp vanilla
- pinch of cinnamon
Preheat oven to 425. Roll the pastry out and place into an 11 inch tart pan. The dough is very forgiving so feel free to patch up as needed. Punch several holes in the bottom with a fork. Lay sliced apples into tart in whatever design you wish, overlapping each slice so that more fit in. Bake until crust just begins to firm, about 8-10 minutes. This pre- baking allows the crust to brown on the bottom and ensures that shrinkage will not occur after liquid has been added, leading to filling seeping out. This is especially important if you are using a 2 piece tart pan. While the tart is baking, mix next 5 ingredients in a mixing bowl.
Next remove the tart from the oven, and pour filling evenly over the apples. Return to the oven, reduce heat to 400, and bake until the whole tart is golden brown. If the top seems to be browning too fast, reduce heat.