The Art of Stuffed Cabbage: Politics and Passion in Haute Cuisine
by My Linh Luu
In Haute Cuisine (dir. 2013 by Christian Vincent), a previously unknown truffle farmer in the province, Hortense Laborie is asked to cook at the Élysées, where she reveals not just expertise in her craft, but also a determination in her refusal to submit to the demeaning and hostile attitudes of the other, all-male chefs. At this fast-paced and rigid environment, Hortense strives to pursue her passion for the culinary arts as chef in the Private Kitchen for the French President, despite the hostility and the political schemes of the power-hungry chefs in the Main Kitchen. Indeed, food is represented as Hortense’s vehicle to rebel against the patriarchal structure of the kitchen, to promote a democratic instead of bureaucratic political system, as well as to challenge the conventional pursuit of success.
Hortense’s commitment to cooking her authentic recipes regardless of the aggression and resentment from the all-male, Main Kitchen (MK), illustrates her refusal to tolerate its patriarchal culture. Indeed, Hortense’s simple and aesthetic cuisine in the Private Kitchen is contrasted with the indistinguishable meals from the Main Kitchen. For instance, her cooking elevates the rustic meal of stuffed cabbage to an exquisite concoction made through meticulous steps, from the peeling of the Savoy cabbages, to the delicate filling of Scottish salmon, to the brouillade of Loire carrots, before wrapping them in a muslin-lined colander to boil. In contrast, the shots of the MK rarely show food being made; rather, they either focus on chaotic actions of uniform male cooks, all dressed in white, or the bitter comments by the MK chefs. After learning about Hortense’s stuffed cabbage, one of the MK male chefs replies, “Stuffed cabbage? The President will be pissing all day.” The omission of close-up scenes of food at the MK shows that its food is prosaic in contrast to Hortense’s sophisticated meals. Hortense’s perseverance in maintaining the authenticity of her cuisine regardless of the provocation from the MK thus makes her a strong female character as well as a power figure who is undeterred by her competitors’ hostility and criticism.
Hortense’s aversion to the bureaucratic nature of politics is shown through her efforts to cook assertively and represents a promotion of a more democratic political structure. In preparation for the President’s family luncheon for the May Banquet, Hortense creates a menu with the theme of the River Loire. From duck liver in Coteaux du Layon jelly to Rochefort jonchée, Hortense’s menu manages to weave both the simplicity of rural ingredients with the complexity of figuring out the ancient recipes through experimentation. Her plan, however, is compromised by the MK head chef, LePiq, who is angered by the Rochefort jonchée because he thinks it is a dessert—a task designated for MK. LePiq, fearing his power is undermined, threatens Hortense, “Everybody’s disposable here except me! Don’t play games with me or you’ll lose!” LePiq’s indignation thus is parallel to the outrage of a politician who sacrifices the purpose of his task (to create a coherent meal) for the assertion of power. Thus, the dichotomy between the MK’s and Hortense’s approach to leadership suggests the two potential ways of political rule in the hands of the President of France, one being autocratic, the other flexible and democratic. Through the metaphor of the jonchée debate and the pejorative depiction of the MK, Haute Cuisine suggests that a democratic political system is better than a bureaucratic and repressive regime.
Aside from Hortense’s refusal to abide by patriarchal and bureaucratic systems, she does not pursue the conventional path of success based on struggles for titles and power. Indeed, a sharp contrast with her work at the Élysées is her time working as a cook for a one-year mission in the Antarctic. Throughout the movie, the scenes of her life at the Palace are juxtaposed with those in the Antarctic. At the Antarctic base, she still cooks her most exquisite dishes, but finds a respite from her previous structured life. In the left film still above, Hortense is shown surrounded by a roomful of men in white aprons when she is a chef at the Palace. The shot is wide, and her colorful attire contrasts with the men’s uniforms—suggesting her characterization as an artist in the midst of conventional cooks. On the right, in the Antarctic, Hortense is shown in a mid-shot, surrounded only by nature, which suggests a sense of tranquility, far away from the politics in the mainland. “Living on this island for a year,” she says, “with the wind, the cold, the isolation … gave me strength.” She also says, “j’ai tourné la page,” implying a her intention to leave behind the strain of politics to the next chapter of life, including travels to New Zealand where she hopes to open a truffle farm.
Ultimately, the art of cooking for Hortense is entwined with a search for happiness and belonging. After defying the patriarchal and bureaucratic environments at the Palace, she departs for a simpler and more authentic lifestyle, while rejecting the pursuit of the traditional ladder of success. Hortense thus embodies the artist who wants to pursue her passion without the constraints of authority and society. The parallel between food and politics furthermore enhances the positive characterization of democracy while denouncing bureaucracy and despotism.
Haute Cuisine. Dir. Christian Vincent. Perf. Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean d’Ormesson. Vendome Production, France 2 Cinema, 2012. DVD.