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)
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.
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.
“I asked myself how a man who doesn’t like wine, to whom one cannot serve stinky cheese, could become president of the Republic,” wrote the political journalist Franz-Olivier Giesbert, quoted by Bragard. “He seemed out of harmony with the country.”
Sarkozy reduced the cost of food at the Élysée by 25 per cent, mostly through impatience. “Instead of dishes being served at table by the maître d’hôtel, he ordered plates filled in the kitchen, to save time,” Vaussion says.
Cheese was banned under Sarko, except when the German chancellor visited. “You haven’t forgotten the cheese for Angela?” he’d ask several times. In a book published last year, Roselyne Bachelot, a cabinet minister under Sarkozy, related the former president’s incredulous account of Merkel’s eating habits: “She loves wine. She eats buttered bread with her cheese. And when we have a meeting, she wants breakfast in the diningroom . . . because there’s a buffet. When meetings are over, she wants to go for a drink in the bar, though I told her I don’t drink.”
In a reversion to pre-Sarkozy protocol, François Hollande has asked that each course again be served on a platter, so guests can help themselves. French media comment on Hollande’s expanding waistline. “He’s someone who really likes eating,” says Vaussion. “He serves himself at table, and you can’t say, ‘That’s enough.’ It’s his responsibility.”
The first couple determine the menus, which are, according to Bragard’s book, a tug-of-war between the food-loving French President and his svelte companion, Valérie Trierweiler. Hollande is more inclined to choose boeuf bourguignon than steamed fish; chocolate mousse rather than sorbet.
Bragard used to design uniforms for top-ranking chefs. He realised that his clients didn’t know each other, and in 1977 convened eight chefs to royalty and heads of state for a meal at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant. The Club des Chefs des Chefs was born. It’s the world’s most exclusive gastronomic club, since one must be a chef to a head of state or government to join.
Each year, one of the chefs hosts his or her colleagues, and introduces them to the boss. Last August 1st, the White House chef Philippines-born Cristeta Comerford invited her fellow chefs to meet Obama.
Vaussion has been elected honorary president of the club by his peers. When he invited them to the Élysée last year, President Hollande told the chefs: “Your profession is difficult and demanding, but very useful for international relations. Depending on whether you make our guests happy, negotiations can be fortunate or unfortunate. You accompany the process. If you wreck a dish, it’s harder to plead a cause.”
The 19th century French statesman and diplomat Talleyrand said it more succinctly: “Give me good cooks, and I’ll give you good treaties.”
Bragard sums up the club’s philosophy as: “The best cuisine in the world is one’s mother’s cooking.” In other words, the chefs of heads of state and government have a duty to showcase the specialities of their own country. Their other responsibility, Bragard says, is to keep their bosses healthy. They’re in tune with Michelle Obama’s White House garden and Let’s Move initiative, he says.
France passed a law imposing male-female parity in politics more than a decade ago. But the Élysée kitchen remains all male. The main problem is that the male cooks rarely leave, Vaussion says. He hired dozens of temporary female interns, but no permanent jobs opened up during his tenure. The former first lady Bernadette Chirac did not help.
“The moment a woman enters the kitchen, it creates problems,” she said on banning women.
The US and Ireland have led the way, with their female presidential chefs. Bragard’s book recounts how Rosaleen MacBride responded to a Dublin newspaper advertisement in 1979. She’s been chef to four Irish presidents, and has cooked for four US presidents.
But the meal MacBride prepared for Queen Elizabeth II on May 17th, 2011, left the deepest impression. “When the meal was over and everything had gone well, Mary McAleese was so happy that she came into the kitchen to thank us,” MacBride told Bragard and his co-author Christian Roudaut. “It was a fantastic event, history in the making: the most historic lunch I’ve ever prepared.”
There were times during his 40 years at the Élysée when Vaussion considered leaving, to become a chef at a luxury hotel, or to open his own restaurant. He had 20 kitchen staff at the Élysée, while his cohorts in the private sector “lead brigades of 80 to 100”.
Who does he admire? Vaussion calls Paul Bocuse “the pope of our cuisine, who revived it and exported it around the world”. Michel Roth, the chef at the Ritz, a few blocks from the Élysée, is a friend. So is Dominique Loiseau, the chef who took over her husband Bernard’s restaurant after his suicide.
Unlike their celebrity counterparts, Élysée chefs must be discreet. Vaussion never minded working in the shadows. “The main thing is to do our job, for the president to be happy. From the moment you can express yourself through cooking, the rest doesn’t matter.”
He also liked “the notion of working for the country, of participating in its life, of being a link in the chain”.
Vaussion published Cuisine de l’Élysée last year. Recipes for oysters in saffron, salmon with caviar, fondant of crab with avocado, mille-feuille of scallops with truffles are enough to make one’s mouth water.
But Vaussion is a man of simple tastes. His favourite food, he says, is pasta. Or potatoes.