The Kitchen Brigade. M, 97 minutes. Three stars
It's not hard to imagine how working in a kitchen as a sous-chef, under one gastronomic eminence or other, might get the ego bristling. It is a situation we have no difficulty in accepting in this lively, generous French social comedy featuring a sous-chef who throws in her apron to set up on her own and finds herself running the canteen in a migrant hostel.
As an actor able to accomplish surly and simpatico simultaneously, Audrey Lamy is well suited to the role of sous-chef Cathy Marie, who responds in desperation to an advert to run a charming restaurant with demanding clientele. With encouragement from mentor Fatoumata Kaba, a well-known Instagram presence playing a character with the same name, Cathy joins the shelter staff. Her new kitchen has banks of microwaves and a pantry full of cans that give the game away, but she buckles down.
The clientele of young males awaiting migrant papers who are staying in the shelter live online and for their football, and care little for what is served up, so long as it fills the space. As she is advised, they are happy on a diet of reliable favourites. Like ravioli - with apologies to the cuisine of France's country next-door neighbour - and soccer, and that's what they get. Cathy could coast, but she doesn't.
Her new colleagues are down-to-earth Sabine (Chantal Neuwirth) and a new boss, someone who has also seen better days, Lorenzo. He is played by likeable Francois Cluzet, complete with unruly mane and walking stick he has swapped for the wheelchair he rode in The Intouchables, another social comedy that tackled inclusion in its particular way.
Lorenzo is keen to keep the eight euros a day each that he is subsidised per person, while Cathy is keen to maintain the fantasy of plating up for individual customers. Sabine's role is to keep the peace.
It's well known that enthusiasm is infectious. So, it isn't long before the new chef at the shelter is imparting her skills and passion for food to the boys, who are reputedly under 18 years and reputedly not "illegals". Cultural norms can intrude when some resist accepting orders from a woman, even if she is the chief of the kitchen, but ways and means are found to navigate the issue.
From Cathy to the individuals in her unlikely "brigade de cuisine", The Kitchen Brigade is crowded with characters yet they each need to fall into a role as individual members of a team. A list of this hierarchy of roles in the French kitchen can be found online and it is well worth a look. Cathy finds that an analogy with the roles on a soccer field is useful.
Cooking classes develop with wide-ranging consequences. Teaching survival mathematics, Lorenzo finds they help in teaching equations. Skills advance other skills. And teaching cuisine spills into other areas, even reading Proust.
Director Louis-Julien Petit worked from a screenplay he wrote in collaboration with Sophie Besandoun, Liza Benguigui and Thomas Pujol. Petit's most recent feature film, Invisibles, was a comedy-drama from 2018 set in a shelter for homeless women. It can be confused with Les Intouchables of 2011, with which Petit has no connection, as far as I know.
Comedy needs well-defined characters, and we certainly have them here. From GusGus (Yannick Kalombo) to Mamadou (Amadou Bah) to Djibril (Mamadou Koita), they bring along their favourite dishes from home and very different backstories. It transpires that Cathy Marie has a backstory of her own.
The Kitchen Brigade doesn't aim for novelty but for reassuring comedy tropes that help make social issues, from frivolous to profound, more digestible. There is the occasional jolt of reality, like the use of X-rays to ascertain whether actual age matches stated age - that is, under-18, referencing the global people movements all around - and the importance of respect at every turn.
Food is the primary message here, however. You wouldn't think that the benefits of quality food in institutional settings needed emphasising, but this warm-hearted social comedy is a reminder that there's ravioli, and then there's ravioli.
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