Eric Boucher - 2012-04-16
In 2010, the Gastronomic Meal of the French made the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Certain aspects of the formal meal date from the 17C, such as the marriage of food and wine, the sequence of dishes and the fine art of laying a table. If there’s one place in the world that exemplifies the splendorous art of dining à la française, it’s the Élysée Palace.
Gastronomic meals at the service of the Nation
French president François Mitterrand once (famously) said, ‘Give time enough time.’ Bernard Vaussion would surely agree. After beginning his career as a simple kitchen porter under President Pompidou, this native of France’s Sologne region climbed every rung of the ladder until he reached the top in 2004, when he was named executive chef of the Élysée kitchens. Thirty-nine years of dedicated service. Vaussion’s tone is settled, courteous and affable and the atmosphere in his kitchens is cosy, in direct contrast to the hysteria that often reigns elsewhere. Another particularity of the Élysée kitchens is the contact with world leaders, a humbling proximity that invites restraint. You won’t be able to coax a single scoop or spicy anecdote from the man who has satisfied the appetites of Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy. Vaussion plans to remain at his post until the next election, and if his retirement is already in the air, it’s been decided that his brilliant assistant Guillaume Gomez, a ‘Best Craftsman of France’, will take over when the time comes.
During the reigns of De Gaulle and Pompidou, the kitchens followed the hallowed tradition of famed chef Auguste Escoffier, serving robust pieces of beef or braised, whole suckling calves. Today, the president’s cuisine is similar to that served in the finest starred restaurants. Giscard d’Estaing, who advocated ‘change within continuity’ and kept a sharp eye on the culinary trends of his time, was the first to build a bridge between the most exclusive starred restaurants and the Élysée by introducing nouvelle cuisine to the presidential palace. Bernard Vaussion regularly speaks with other great chefs, beginning with his neighbours Jean-François Piège (when he was at the Crillon) and Éric Fréchon of the Bristol (now called Épicure), a restaurant greatly appreciated by President Sarkozy.
Under Mac-Mahon, president of France in the late 19C, state dinners involved fifteen to twenty dishes served during three to four hours. De Gaulle, more expeditious, drastically reduced the number of dishes to five, served during an hour and three-quarters. With President Sarkozy, meals are lighter and faster: starters, main course and dessert (bye-bye cheese), taken in 55 minutes or an hour and a half depending on the situation. Starters and desserts are served directly on the plate, but the main course is still presented à la française, meaning that guests may serve themselves.
A living national heritage
The first thing that one notices upon entering the 500 m2 kitchen fitted into the old stables of the Republican Guard is the abundance of brightly polished copper cookware : pots, pans, moulds, casseroles… They come from the Tuileries, Fontainebleau, Compiègne and St. Cloud, and the daily fare of Louis-Philippe and Napoléon III was cooked in them. But they are not hung there for decorative purposes. ‘We use them every day,’ Vaussion explains.
Revolutions notwithstanding, there have been no new beginnings in the dining rooms, where continuity and transmission are a deliberate choice. Mac-Mahon invited himself to the table of Louis-Philippe; Carnot and Pompidou to that of Napoleon III. The china – used daily - is from Sèvres, which is only to be expected in a palace which was once the home of the Marquise de Pompadour*.
Each piece is stamped and dated, such as the plates from the Capraire set, the oldest of which were manufactured in 1826. The archived information demonstrates the care with which each successive president invests in the future and expands this national treasure. Several terms of office can go by between the creation of a new pattern and the final set. For example, although the Service aux Oiseaux - the Bird Service - was created in 1858, the coffee cup was not manufactured until 1911 and its gold trim added in 1926. Almost as if Armand Fallières (French president from 1906 to 1913) had served coffee to Poincaré (1913-1920). (President Fallières is known for his refusal to run for office a second time, stating, ‘It’s not a bad job, but there’s no possibility for promotion.’) The latest creation for the Élysée table is the Constellation set designed by Philippe Favier in 2000 to mark the millennium at the request of Bernadette Chirac.
If a piece of tableware has been damaged, it will be sent back to Sèvres to be repaired and won’t be returned until two or three years later. Each piece is unique and hand-painted; one serving dish from the Service aux Oiseaux requires eighty hours of work and costs € 3,000 to € 6,000. The same goes for the Baccarat crystal glasses which are sent back to the manufacturer to be repaired when they are cracked or chipped.
A team of six ‘silver masters’ takes care of the table service and silverware made by Puiforcat and Christofle. To lay the tables, after consulting with the attendant, linens staff and chef, the silver masters choose the service depending on the menu, the guests and the fragility of the tableware. The main course is generally served in the Capraire set whereas the more delicate Service aux Oiseaux is kept for sweets. The particularly ornate decor of this latter sometimes makes it challenging for the cooks to present the desserts to their best advantage.
Laying the table like they do at the Élysée Palace
If you fancy setting your table like they do at the Élysée, here are a few tips.
Set the plates one finger-width from the table’s edge.
Unlike at Buckingham Palace, where the royal coat of arms is engraved on the visible side of the silverware, RF (for République Française) is stamped on the underside of forks which are laid with their tines to the table so the stamp can be seen.
A particularity of the Élysée table is the manner in which the glasses are placed: either in a triangle or a diamond, depending on whether Champagne is to be served. The white wine glass is placed in the centre, three fingers above the plate; the red wine glass is to the right; the water glass to the left; and the Champagne glass is above, in line with the white wine glass, thus adding the final point to the diamond.
* The Élysée Palace was built in 1722 for the Count of Évreux. At his death, the Marquise de Pompadour moved into the premises. In 1756, the Manufacture de Sèvres was founded thanks to the support of Louis XV and his favourite.