food in the arts


Dir: Roland Joffé/ Wrts: Jeanne Labrune, Tom Stoppard (English adaptation)/ Belgium/ 2000 Gérard Depardieu/ Uma Thurman/ Tim Roth/ Timothy Spall/ Julian Glover



VATEL is based on the true story of an ordinary man, a decadent king, and the woman caught between them.

Vatel was the son of a farm labourer, so to rise to the height that he did in that era was astounding. It was a time when status and political clout were often demonstrated via the dinner table, and great chefs were "prizes" to be sought and bribed into service. He himself was not a chef, but a "master of the kitchen" of the Prince of Condé at Chantilly, and was supposedly a superb creator of new dishes.

The year is 1671. King Louis XIV rules at Versailles. In the North of France, Prince de Conde has come up with a plan to get his province out of debt: he'll invite the King to his country chateau for a weekend of spectacle and merriment. If he can get back in the King's good graces, his region can avoid economic disaster. The whole plan, and the prosperity of an entire province, rests on the one man who can deliver the sumptuous food, elaborate entertainment and all out decadence fit for this King. He is the prince's steward, Vatel (Gerard Depardieu). But in the midst of preparing this immense spectacle, Vatel catches the eye of the beautiful Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman). In so doing, he has placed himself in direct competition with the King. VATEL is based on the true story of an ordinary man, a decadent king and the woman caught between them.

Despite a sturdy, occasionally subtle performance from Depardieu, cast (predictably) as the life-loving master of entertainments, burdened by his debt-ridden aristo employer (Glover) with the responsibility of providing food, music, theatre, etc, for the visiting Louis XIV (Sands), this tepid costumer is as much a hollow, purposelessly extravagant spectacle as the court shenanigans it depicts. The plot, such as it is, centres on the triangular romantic/sexual intrigues between principled lady-in-waiting Thurman, salt-of-the-earth Depardieu, and the king's malicious right-hand wig Roth. For a movie about food, sensuality and passion, it's strikingly undernourished.

Vatel is attributed with the invention of "Crème Chantilly" for a banquet in 1661, while he was in the employ of Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finances. The Prince of Condé managed to lure Vatel into his own service - it seems that "head-hunting" or poaching of chefs was not uncommon in those days either! In 1671 Vatel's big chance for fame came when King Louis XIV and an entourage of 200 were invited by the prince to a reception. At that time the king's chef was La Varenne, and Vatel saw the opportunity to prove his own superiority.

On the first evening of the king's visit (April 23) a light supper:

Turtle soup,
Creamed chicken fried trout
Roast pheasant

About 75 more guests turned up than had been expected, and Vatel was embarrassed as he felt that some of the tables did not receive enough roasts. His staff assured him that no-one else had noticed, and all of the guests were happy, but he was still most upset.

In the early hours of the next morning, a consignment of fish was expected, but when only a few baskets arrived, Vatel became distraught - no doubt already anticipating the shame of not feeding the king well enough. He went to his room, wrote a note saying "The shame is too much to bear", fixed his sword in the door frame, and stabbed himself (eight times according to some reports). Shortly after his body was discovered the rest of the fish arrived.

The meal went ahead as planned, except for the omission of the fillet of sole as a mark of respect.

The menu was:

Anchovies Sevigne
Melon with Parma Ham
Lobster Quenelles With Shrimp Sauce
Leg of Lamb
Vatel Duck Saluted in Madeira Wine
Strawberry Bombe

 GA/ Janet Clarkson and Stephen Block/ Time Out

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