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Elysée chef spills beans on French presidents


Chef Bernard Vaussion has been cooking for French presidents at the Elysée Palace since 1974. Retiring from public service on Wednesday, he has published a book detailing his bosses’ tastes.


France’s most senior chef goes into retirement Wednesday after leading the kitchen at the Elysée presidential palace and preparing food for six French heads since Georges Pompidou in the early 1970s.

Bernard Vaussion, 60, got to know his masters (the French word for ‘boss’ or ‘leader’ is also ‘chef’) well since his engagement as a junior member of the Elysée's culinary team in 1974.

Vaussion was already a seasoned diplomatic cook by the time he took the job, having worked in the kitchens of the French embassies in Amsterdam and London, and spent his military service mastering his trade at the Elysée.

To mark his retirement Vaussion has published his memoir: "La Cuisine de l’Elysée – a la Table des Présidents" (At the Presidents’ Table).

First come, first serve, with Georges Pompidou (1969 – 1974)

Pompidou, says Vaussion, loved traditional cooking and was the first French head of state to install a private kitchen in the Elysée’s presidential apartment.

He was particularly partial to what Vaussion calls “plats canailles” (best translated as “simple and heavy” dishes), such as slow-cooked lamb and boeuf bourgignon, a traditional French beef dish stewed in red wine.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1974 – 1981), the healthy eater

Giscard-d’Estaing bought a more modern flavour to the Elysée’s menu, taking a keen interest in the work “downstairs” and choosing light and healthy dishes.

Often eating on his own in the evenings in front of the television, Giscard-d’Estaing was particularly partial to scrambled eggs with truffle sauce, Vaussion writes.

But when it came to entertaining, he would deploy the full force of France’s arsenal of regional speciality cuisine with no holds barred, according to Vaussion.

François Mitterand (1981 – 1995), the champagne Socialist

Mitterand was the only French president in the modern era never to personally visit the Elysée’s kitchens – and he didn’t even know the names of his senior cooks, Vaussion laments.

Nevertheless, Mitterand was big on entertaining and liked to impress his guests with the quality of the food and chose his menus carefully.

He was particularly fond of Breton oysters and the best foie gras, and was famous for eating ortolan bunting (a small and now protected songbird) at small intimate dinners with friends. He was also a particular fan of caviar.

Jacques Chirac (1995 – 2007), a lover of stuffed veal’s head

Chirac was a “gourmand [glutton], pure and simple”, according to Vaussion, who said the conservative president was keenly interested in farmers and their produce, and chefs and their creations.

Vaussion gives the recipe for Chirac’s favourite dish – veal’s head – in his book, although he admits that the president ate so much of the delicacy outside of the Elysée, his cook only actually prepared it for him twice. “I think the veal’s head thing was more of a myth that he rather enjoyed,” Vaussion writes.

It was Chirac who promoted Vaussion to executive chef in 2005.

Nicolas Sarkozy (2007 – 2012), keeping an eye on the waistline

While having a preference for light dishes suited to his healthy lifestyle – particularly “lean meat and fish, and steamed vegetables” – Sarkozy, a teetotaler, was a “gourmet with a refined palate”.

As the financial crisis hit, Sarkozy felt obliged to take caviar and the most expensive cheeses off the menu – except, in a notable exception, for a visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He nevertheless still gave food and its preparation top priority when entertaining guests.

Leaving Hollande (2012 - )

Vaussion quits the Elysée half way through Socialist President Francois Hollande’s tenure.

Hollande, a wine lover who made a huge efforts to lose weight to look trim ahead of the 2012 presidential election campaign, likes his meat and fish and has since put cheese firmly back on the menu.

He is also, according to Vaussion, a particular fan of chocolate.

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