How ‘The Taste of Things’ Translated Cooking Into a Visual Feast

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The Taste of Things, the new French-language film from director Trần Anh Hùng, begins with an extended cooking sequence. Eugénie, played by Juliette Binoche, is in her element, a quiet but commanding presence in the kitchen. Having already harvested vegetables in the early morning, she whirls through the large sunlit space, searing organs she’s plucked out of fish, readying a copper vat of stock, and hefting a rack of veal and hot trays of roasted vegetables.

Throughout the scene, the sounds and dialogue are sparse: milk pouring, the whisk clinking as Eugénie stirs bechamel, her spoon tapping as she plops quenelles into poaching liquid, birds tweeting in the background. Because of this, the film is instantly mesmerizing and transportive, set in 19th-century France (mostly) on the grounds of a chateau. And just when you think Eugénie has completed her final element of the feast, she reaches for another ingredient.

Eugénie is joined by two young assistants and her gastronome employer, Dodin, played by Benoît Magimel. For 20 years, Eugénie has been the anchor of Dodin’s kitchen, and therefore, of his life; he has long been trying to convince her to marry him. (In real life, Binoche and Magimel have a daughter together, though they separated years ago.) Eugénie and Dodin’s relationship centers on cooking for and with each other, and in the kitchen, they have the lockstep choreography and silent delegation of two people who have spent years doing just that. That food is a love language is emphasized by the film’s release date: It hits theaters across the United States on Valentine’s Day.

Eugénie’s cooking gives way to the actual feast, which is for Dodin and his gourmand friends. Eugénie remains in the kitchen, where she manages the à la minute touches. When the food hits the table, it becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, that The Taste of Things will go down as a food movie for the ages — sensual, sumptuous, and romantic. Perhaps most impressive of all the dishes at this initial feast is the seafood-filled vol-au-vent, which elicits awe both from Dodin’s friends and from moviegoers; you can hear the cracks in the layers of puff pastry as Dodin cuts in.

Food remains central, both visually and thematically, as the story progresses to follow Eugénie and Dodin’s developing romance, the meals they continue to cook, and Eugénie’s later illness. It was previously titled The Pot-au-Feu, after the classic French dish that also features prominently.

Food is as much as the star of the film as Binoche and Magimel, and all of this food was real, as was the cooking we see by both actors. To make this possible, Trần enlisted French chef Pierre Gagnaire, who consulted on the dishes and how to prepare them (and appears in a cameo), as well as chef Michel Nave, a longtime colleague of Gagnaire who provided on-location cooking support and culinary instruction for Binoche and Magimel. Eater interviewed Binoche and Gagnaire while they were in New York City to promote The Taste of Things to discuss the beauty and the challenges of making such a food-focused film.

Eater: That long cooking sequence was such a beautiful intro. I’m wondering if you can talk about the process of learning and filming that scene.

Juliette Binoche: I think Hùng had really worked that out. Hùng is very specific about camera movements; he calls himself a technical director. He spent a lot of time with Pierre choosing the right meals and dishes, what was historically right but also what would look good to film. He spent five days with him shooting in the kitchen and talking with the historians. He sent us videos of Pierre cooking so that when I arrived on the set, I already knew how Pierre was making things. I knew that, and Benoît knew it as well.

We just had a day of rehearsals before we shot the actual scene, but it was not that difficult because Hùng had thought of everything. He really shot like a painter, making sure that the scene was always interesting, always in movement, that it makes sense for the dish. But we had to do the intro scene all together because it’s a sequence, so if one person was making a mistake, then we had to start all over again.

Pierre, how did your involvement in the film come about?

Pierre Gagnaire: I met Hùng seven years ago. We do a pot-au-feu each winter at the restaurant. He came because he wanted to try the pot-au-feu, to speak with me about this project, and to see the quality of our work.

Juliette, what was your culinary training like for this role, if any?

JB: To train, it was just the day before. Pierre’s right hand was working on the set. [Michel Nave] taught us how to cook things, and all the right gestures. He was very patient. Even though Benoît is a good cook and I cook as well, it’s very specific and it really goes into another level of cooking.

When there was a specific thing to do, Michel was saying, “Yes, no, do it more like this.” You see me cut the fish at the beginning, and we only had three fishes. They showed me once, and then I had to do it myself. You’re frightened because you think, What if I miss it? But it was actually the first one that is shown in the film.

Juliette Binoche stands behind a steamy pot and in front of a large hearth in a still from the movie “The Taste of Things,” in which she plays a cook named Eugénie.
Binoche had watched videos of Gagnaire cooking in order to understand her role as Eugénie.
IFC

How does your cooking at home differ from the kind of cooking you do in the movie?

JB: It’s not as sophisticated because I don’t have the time. My character starts in the morning. She gets the vegetables, and it’s a whole-day process. Sometimes I cook for the whole day because I have 10 people coming and I want to give the best I can and impress them, but it’s exhausting. It’s not as sophisticated as what Pierre does, because for him, it’s a whole life of thinking.

PG: I don’t cook at home. It takes too much time. It’s my job, it’s my work. When I’m at home, it’s quick, quick, quick, because I prefer to see a movie or to read a book.

JB: He cannot cook and go to the table with the other people eating — he can’t, like Eugénie, my character. In their work, it’s really a problem of nourishing yourself.

Did working on this movie change how you cook at home at all?

JB: Well, we used a lot of butter. I’m daring to use butter more now, and clarifying the butter, which is very important because otherwise it burns and it’s not good.

What was the biggest challenge of cooking on set versus cooking at home or in the restaurant?

JB: The challenge of the film was to have the dishes ready, the heat ready, and the shot ready at the same time; to synchronize both worlds was a difficult thing. There’s also the pace: The camera is on him, then it’s gonna come to you, so the difficulty is to feel natural, that you’ve done it for ages and ages and it’s no secret for you. But acting is all about believing, and if you have good faith, it comes easily.

PG: The timing. You go back and forth and stop. It’s not the same rhythm.

Do either of you have a favorite dish that appears in the film?

JB: I loved everything. What I was very proud of is that at the end of the film, Michel Nave gave us a little book of recipes that we’d been through in the film and I was able to do it, and I was so happy.

PG: The vol-au-vent. What’s complicated with a vol-au-vent is to keep that crispy side, when it’s mixed with the sauce inside that’s very creamy. It’s complicated to have both together, but the way Hùng filmed the vol-au-vent was incredible. The sounds are very important.

What was your favorite thing about working on this film?

JB: At the end of the day, after making this film, I can say that it’s to give a gift to my daughter, because Benoît is the father of my daughter and we’ve been separated for a long time. This film was a sort of reconciliation between him and myself, because we used Hùng’s script to tell each other, I love you. It’s okay. Everything’s fine. I think for our daughter to have that, it’s the best.

Parts of this interview were conducted in French, with translation provided by Binoche. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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