All the Presidents’ menus: life as the top chef at the Élysée Palace

Fried fois gras and stuffed fish were among French presidents’ favourites served up by chef Bernard Vaussion during his four decades at Élysée Palace

French Elysee presidential palace chef Bernard Vaussion (right) and his successor Guillaume Gomez (left) pose in the kitchen at the Elysee palace in Paris. Photograph:  MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

French Elysee presidential palace chef Bernard Vaussion (right) and his successor Guillaume Gomez (left) pose in the kitchen at the Elysee palace in Paris. Photograph: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 15:06

Bernard Vaussion has spent his whole life in the kitchen. The top chef at the Élysée Palace retired recently at the age of 60. He’d been a pastry apprentice at 14, then worked for Dutch and British ambassadors before becoming a kitchen trainee at the Élysée, in lieu of military service.

To hear Vaussion talk, his four decades in the 500sq m (5,382sq ft) basement kitchen have been exciting and enchanting. There were trips abroad with French presidents; the night Jacques Chirac summoned him after dining alone, weighed down with problems. “That was super good,” Chirac said, shaking Vaussion’s hand.

Vaussion spent sleepless nights rehearsing the menus and choreography of state dinners in his head.

Before the 2004 dinner marking the centenary of the entente cordiale, Jacques and Bernadette Chirac pre-tested the entire meal, playing the roles of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

It’s not easy to feed 250 people in 50 minutes – the reglementary duration of a state dinner. Vaussion was never as desperate as the 17th century royal cook François Vatel, who pierced his own heart with a sword when a fish delivery failed to materialise. “But sometimes deliveries are late, or there are changes. You’re afraid it will flop and there’s a rush of adrenalin,” he says.

For the most famous guests – the Queen of England, Barack Obama – Vaussion slipped upstairs for a few minutes, to watch from behind a column or a curtain “to see them in the flesh”. The intendant (public official) of the Élysée relayed comments from the president and guests the following day.

When US presidents dine at the Élysée, a member of the Secret Service stands guard in the kitchen. George W Bush’s security detail exchanged his cutlery for another place setting. Obama’s bodyguard insisted on choosing the small loaf of bread destined for the US president. Rabbis instructed Vaussion on the preparation of kosher food for Israeli leaders.

The Élysée cancelled a lunch for the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki after he insisted that “ungodly wine” be kept off the table. A dinner for the former Iranian president Mohamed Khatami was rescheduled as tea, for the same reason.

Presidents come and go, but their chefs remain. France has had six presidents but only three top chefs, including Vaussion, since he began work on January 2nd, 1974. “Under Pompidou, we served whole stuffed fishes, lambs, complicated sauces,” he recalls. “With Monsieur Giscard d’Estaing, we cut things into smaller portions. Modern cooking started.”

François Mitterrand’s favourite dish was lightly fried foie gras. Never one to shun luxury, the previous socialist president also had a penchant for caviar.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s food preferences caused alarm. As recounted by Gilles Bragard, the founder of the Club des Chefs des Chefs – of which more later – and author of the book Chefs des Chefs, Sarkozy shunned pasta with truffles and preferred Diet Coke to Château Latour.

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