The High Priest of the Presidential Table

Bernard Vaussion, chef de l’Elysée, executive chef at the presidential palace, retires soon after 38 years feeding French presidents, a career making him France’s culinary high priest yet leaving him relatively unknown in the guidebooks of haute cuisine.

The palace team that outranks every Michelin restaurant in France

For this Chefs des Chefs, is more of a secret agent than a culinary super-star. After all, he says, he is not running a restaurant merely catering to the head of state. Ah but surely that is the top cooking job in the country.

For apart from ensuring his twice-a-day menus meet the high standards of the French art of haute cuisine they also have had to cater to the saveurs and idiosyncrasies of five presidents – Valéry Giscard d’Estaing,  François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande — hailing from different terroirs and traditions and most recently meet the rigours of politically-driven budget austerity which has meant no more Russian caviar on the menu.

For he and his 12-strong, all-male team are expected to deliver an in-house culinary experience that matches anything concocted by Paul Bocuse and other Michelin-starred giants of French cuisine – and ranging from intimate family dinners and cabinet lunches to elaborate state banquets.

For while the Elysée is not featured in the Guide de Guides, the palace kitchens and wine cellars most surely match or surpass anything today’s disciples of Auguste Escoffier put before their discerning customers.

Bernard Vaussion, chef de l’Elysée being interviewed on a recent TV programme

The chef and his team are not about to admit it or acknowledge any hint of competitiveness, but they don’t need to; after all visiting heads of state and government and other global VIPs are wined and dined on their menus not those of the expensive Parisian or Lyonnaise palaces of food excellence in which France excels.

In November 2010, ” the gastronomic meal of the French ” earned a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, defined, according to Time magazine, as “a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking”.

It is in fact a meal backed by formalism which is partly 17th century: and combines a marriage of good food with excellent wine and a succession of dishes, with the precision of refined French table art. If there is one place indeed where the arts de la table is lavishly achieved it is the Élysée Palace—and we regret there is no waiting list and the clientele are in any event the handpicked elite.

If in earlier days the kitchens would have been preparing favoured pieces of beef or braised veal, served up whole and on the table for Gen. de Gaulle or Georges Pompidou in the revered traditions of Auguste Escoffier, today’s kitchen is in line with the practices of the large Michelin starred establishments.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a subscriber to “change and continuity”, was well aware of the latest culinary trends of his time, and became the first to build a bridge between major starred restaurants and the Elysée by introducing an entirely modernised kitchen in the former stables of the palace.

Nowadays, Bernard Vaussion has regular conversations with other famous chefs, starting with his neighbours, Jean-François Piège when he was at the Hotel Crillon and Éric Fréchon at the Bristol Hotel’s L’Épicure restaurant, whose food Nicolas Sarkozy was particularly partial to.

For President Patrice de Mac Mahon (1808-1893), a state dinner had fifteen to twenty dishes served over a period of three or four hours. De Gaulle who was more expeditious, drastically reduced the number of plates to five, and the length of the banquet to one hour forty minutes. President Sarkozy called for lighter meals and even shorter meal times: appetizer, entree, dessert (no cheese), all completed in 55 minutes or a maximum hour and a half for formal affairs. Starters and desserts are now plated, but the main dish continues to be presented to the guest who serves himself at table according to an article by Eric Boucher, on the Restaurant Michelin website.

When President Hollande took office in early 2012 the kitchens once more faced the prospect of adjustment — continuity through change as Slate magazine  called it.

For François Hollande, raised in Normandy, is a provincial who loves local dishes, those that reflect la France profonde or deepest rural France.

However as his advisors had forced him to shed considerable weight to win the election, his tastes, particularly his sweet tooth, have had to be curbed so as not to ruin the effect.

Thus Bernard Vaussion was instructed to moderate his use of fat, and forgo heavy rural specialties such as cassoulet des Landes, le lièvre à la royale, les daubes mitonnées. He  was asked to cook lighter recipes, adding plenty of fresh fish, while  not neglecting the proper flavour of the products used, and seasonal vegetables and fruits. The menus he was told should not exclude pastries and chocolate just reduce them in size and quantity.

Bernard Vaussion’s working environment is unique among all French chefs . He and his team inhabit a 500m2 kitchen which is filled with gleaming brass pots, pans and skillets. These come from the Tuileries, Fontainebleau, Compiègne and Saint-Cloud, and have been in use since the days of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III.

Copper bottomed presidential pots and pans

Despite the changes wrought by the French Revolution more than 200 years ago, the policy at the Élysée has been to prefer continuity and transmission, writes Eric Boucher.

The dinner service used at table is all from Sèvres , as is befitting of a building that belonged to the Marquise de Pompadour (The Élysée Palace was built in 1722 for the Count d’Évreux and when he died Pompadour took it over. In 1756, the Manufacture de Sèvres was founded thanks to support from Louis XV) and Sèvres porcelain is still in use today.

Each piece is stamped and dated, with the Capraire service– the oldest — dating from 1826. When any piece in the dinner service is damaged it is returned to Sèvres for repair, often only coming back two or three years later. Each piece is unique and hand painted and in the case of a plate in the Oiseaux collection takes some 80 hours to complete at a price of between 3000 and 6,000 euros a time.

The same applies to the Baccarat glasses, which are shipped back to the crystal maker for repair as soon as they are chipped or cracked.

Six silversmiths take care of the Puiforcat and Christofle silver dishes and cutlery. In preparing a table for formal occasions, they choose the service in collaboration with the head steward and the seamstresses and tailor it  to the menu, the guests … and the fragility of the service. The main dish will be served on the Capraire service, while the more delicate Oiseaux collection is reserved for desserts.

As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin — one of the founding fathers of French gastronomy — noted all those years ago: “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” The tradition is alive and well at  the Élysée.

Fancy a bit of do it yourself Élysée table at your next dinner party? Here are some tips:

  • Place the plates one finger width from the edge of the table.
  • Forks are placed teeth down against table so the initials RF (République Française) are visible, unlike at Buckingham Palace where the arms of the British crown are engraved on either side of the cutlery.
  • Glasses are set out in a triangle or diamond, depending on whether champagne is being served or not. The white wine glass is placed in the centre, three fingers above the plate, the red wine glass to the right, the water glass to the left, and the champagne flute aligned with the white wine glass, thus completing the diamond.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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