Next month I head back to France. As usual, before that trip, I will brush up on my French, such as it is. (Which doesn’t get me too far because, despite the stereotype, everyone is eager to speak English.) I have French language CDs that I listen to during my morning commute, which garners strange looks from other commuters who no doubt are wondering why that guy in the car next to them at the traffic light is talking to himself. I also listen to French Canadian radio, but usually only catch about one word out of ten. The most entertaining method to practice one’s French is to watch French movies, especially comedies. The plots are obviously not terribly complicated, so you can figure out a lot about what is going on without understanding every spoken word.
And so recently I came across a light-hearted French comedy staring Jean Reno and Michaël Youn titled Le Chef (Trailer). The plot resembles another movie by the same, albeit English, title: Chef, staring Jon Favreau. ( Meals on Wheels)
In Le Chef, Reno plays Alexandre Legarde, a cantankerous and ambitious veteran chef who is on the verge of losing everything because the restaurant owner’s greedy son is in charge, and he wants to force Legarde aside and replace him with a younger chef who specializes in molecular gastronomy. In order to get Legarde fired, the owner’s son plans to have the restaurant lose one star after Legarde (the stereotypical French traditionalist) fails to impress the critics with a molecular gastronomic masterpiece. Of course, Lagarde has no idea how to create such a dish. (The scene where Reno tries to recreate a deconstructed duck is one of the movie’s best.) But along comes Jacky Bonnot, played by Youn, an up-and-coming young chef who worships Legarde and knows more about Legarde than even Legarde knows about himself.
Of course, the movie follows the predictable comedy plot and vaguely resembles Ratatouille. I was also surprised how—dare I say this?—how American this movie seemed. First, there was the ambitious chef who ignores his offspring, in this case his daughter who is working on her PhD. And then the up-and-coming iconoclast who wants to shake up the staid French culinary world. And finally, the last minute deux ex machina that saves the day. All that being said, however, the movie is fun to watch, and it does take on issues of excessive commercialism in haute cuisine, eating locally, and trendy food vs. culinary tradition.
When I travel to France next month, I can’t say that I will seek out the culinary trend of month or the ne plus ultra of French haute cuisine. But I will be looking for good food, served by iconoclastic and, yes, even insouciant chefs who enjoy cooking not just to obtain stars or critical praise, but for the joy of cooking itself. Stay tuned for tales of my upcoming dining adventures.