In the film Babette’s Feast, based on a story of the same title by Isak Dinesen a highly-gifted chef schooled in cooking as high art escapes war-torn Paris. She finds herself living in gentle servitude to two good and pious but dour, nearly joyless, sisters.
With no inkling who Babette is, the sisters instruct her on preparing their diet of long-simmered dried fish. Definitely not cooking as high art and probably offensive to the talented chef. Babette says nothing and does not show off what she knows. Until she wins money in a lottery.
She doesn’t take the money to live a little more luxuriously elsewhere. Instead, she spends it on the makings of a feast that she prepares with much care. The feast is an unexpected gift to the people of this cold and gray seaside village. It’s nothing like they had ever known and something they’ll never forget.
I have watched this film a few times, mostly for its memorable dinner scene. The expressions and comments of diners show them clearly savoring the dishes, allowing tastes to linger sensuously on their taste buds. No one rushes to gobble up dishes. Instead, diners pause and pay attention. The dishes fill them with wonderment.
But the sumptuous dinner does much more than celebrate food’s appeal to the senses. Depending on their orientation, readers/writers have interpreted Babette’s Feast in religious, artistic, or psychological terms (for example, this article by Priscilla Ferguson).
At infrequent dinners we’ve had at a local restaurant I find myself replaying the dinner scene in Babette’s Feast. Only, my version of it is more intense and full of happy surprises: Our feast is, after all, real and not vicarious.
The menu is inventive and includes uncommon ingredients used in uncommon ways. Once seated, diners have to put their fate in the chefs’ hands. You don’t get a printed menu (you do get one with the bill). You learn what you’ll have next when the server brings and describes each dish. This may intimidate someone who likes to always be in control or isn’t adventurous about food.
The whole dinner unfolds in the manner of a full course French menu, You get small servings of amuse bouche, fish and meat courses, palate cleansers and dessert. Each dish is a symphony of flavors, textures, and colors, with unexpected twists and ingredients. For instance, a very light bay leaf mousse spooned over a mélange of variously textured citruses. Or tiny slices of sweet tart red beets on top of melting cauliflower puree. Or a sweet oyster shrouded in sea foam and contrasted with tiny slices of crunchy potatoes. Baby shrimp is fragrant with pea tendrils, chrysanthemum, and rhubarb. All dishes are created from a belief in cooking as high art.
Babette has been reincarnated at this restaurant, where chefs treat cooking as high art. It’s the only restaurant in the area with two Michelin stars. Maître Chef James and his staff love what they do. Like all gifted artists passionate about their medium, they push cooking as high as they can take it.
My experience at this restaurant has inspired my latest novel, Sugar and Spice and All Those Lies.