irector: Louis-Julien Petit (France). Year of Release: 2022
Inside the kitchen of a posh restaurant. TV chef Lyna Deletto is swanning around followed by a camera. She takes a meal prepared by sous-chef Cathy and adds garnish. When Deletto has gone, Cathy removes the garnish and sends it to the diner. She is later taken to Deletto’s office and reprimanded. Why did she remove the garnish? “Did the diner enjoy the meal?”, asks Cathy. Well yes, but Cathy should not disobey orders. That’s her last day in that job.
Cathy applies for other jobs, but although she created the recipes which made Deletto famous, she can’t find anyone to give her a job. Then she finds one where she was the only applicant. It’s at a home on the edge of town for under-age refugees. The advert was being slightly creative when it described the job as being in an exclusive restaurant. Actually, Cathy will be working in the canteen. Her bedroom is full of bunk beds which they could not store anywhere else.
As soon as the kids in the home reach the age of 18, they are deported. The State sends in doctors to check their bones and x-ray their teeth. If the x-rays say that they’re older than they say they are, they are also deported. Cathy’s job is to feed them while they’re there. Unimpressed by the maxi-tins of ravioli and microwaves, she demands some real food and cooking implements. As long as she stays within the budget of €8 per person per day she can do what she likes.
Cathy starts to prepare the ravioli with red onions and arranges them into pretty nouvelle cuisine shapes. It takes her hours and by the time the food is ready, pretty much everyone has gone to other appointments. When she complains to the management that she’s not able to manage all this on their own, they tell her to get the kids to work in the kitchen. After all, they spend most of their time playing football. The trouble is, the sullen kids don’t appreciate being treated as slaves.
From the start, Marie insists that they call her chef – not just when they need to use her name, but in every sentence: yes chef, no chef. Chef has, of course, a double meaning. It means cook, but it also means chief, or boss. There is something unsettling about this white woman insisting that these mainly black, entirely migrant kids call her boss. Especially as at the beginning of the film, Marie had been portrayed as a rebel who wouldn’t take any shit from her own perfectionist boss.
Nonetheless, and for no obvious reason, after a brief falter, all the kids join in without complaining. Seeing that they like football, Marie calls them a team, or a brigade. There are the defenders in the kitchen and the forwards waiting table. Their whole vocabulary becomes taken over by the sort of management bullshit that you hear on one of those seminars aimed at improving morale, but really only attended by people because they appreciate a day out of the office.
Cooking in die Küchenbrigade is always portrayed as work, not something to feed yourself, or – heaven forfend – enjoy for its own merits. At best, the kids are helping in the kitchen to help them get a job. And yet they are not obviously paid for anything they do – whether preparing food, cooking, or digging up the vegetables from an allotment. Even Marie’s actor friend joins in the unpaid labour. It may not be a surprize that, like the kids in the home, Marie’s friend is black.
Very near the end, we hear an interview with Gusgus, the youngest, most enthusiastic and most obedient of Marie’s charges. Asked about his ambitions, Gusgus says “I want to own my own restaurant, so people will call me chef.” This exemplifies the politics of the film. A mixture of liberal horror that the system can discriminate and a belief that this system must carriy on exactly as before – though maybe with a couple of slightly differently coloured faces in the boardrooms.
Marie is given a back story. She was an orphan. She too grew up in a children’s home. But then she picked herself up by her bootstraps and made a success of herself. No mention of the other white kids who were unable to progress, nor of the structural racism which will frustrate every attempt by the kids from the home to emulate Marie. For all the concern about refugees, the film is essentially Thatcherite – if you don’t succeed, it’s your own fault for not trying hard enough.
Die Küchenbrigade is well-meaning, but it feels unable to conceive of the young refugees as having any autonomy. The bone and teeth x-ray finds that one of the kids – one of the ones who’s been most belligerent, as it happens – is old enough to be deported. He meekly allows the police to take him away without even protesting that the tests might be wrong. No-one is allowed to change their world, they must wait for a white saviour to change it for them.
Perhaps the most ridiculous plot development happens two-thirds of the way through. We’ve already walked past a couple of posters of a tv reality show for cooks. Well, it turns out that although we’ve been watching things through Cathy’s POV, she’s neglected to mention that she’s in the semi-final. Maybe there’s a way out for the kids after all?
Die Küchenbrigade is what happens when you despair at the world, but lose hope in the possibility of anyone changing it – particularly anyone who suffers from the inequalities. So you depend on fiction – on unbelievable films or tv reality shows – to solve things for you. The problem is, that this removes agency from those who have an interest in changing things, and ends up reinforcing the status quo. It also leads to films which fail to engage and have nothing really to say.