Feel good movies are a universal language, a cinema lover’s comfort food whose formula crosses borders and language barriers.
I dare say “Kitchen Brigade” would amuse, tickle and touch in most any language. But the year’s first winner in this all-important genre is French. So of course, as the title promises, it’s about food and set in a restaurant.
But this bon bon from director and co-writer Louis-Julien Petit (“The Invisibles”) dips into competitive cooking reality TV, soccer, and multiculturalism, with migrant kids awaiting news on whether they’ll be accepted as immigrants or summarily deported back to Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Ethiopia, Congo or all points in between.
It’s smart and topical, touching and touchy. And it is, as the French would put it, un putain de délice — delightful, with an expletive added for emphasis.
Audrey Lamey, a regular on French TV, plays a frustrated and stubborn sous chef who opens our story by quitting her job with the arrogant but popular and ever-so-telegenic Chef Lyna (Chloé Astor), who should know better than to mess with Cathy Marie’s famed “beet organ” appetizer. That’s a dish of tube-shaped tuber slices, arranged like a pipe organ and served with just the right salad dressing.
Cathy Marie is proud, a woman with a reputation, which gets her offers to audition for “The Cook,” a cook-off challenge reality show. But she dismisses that. She will cook! She will save up for her own restaurant! Somebody give her a job!
Alas, the one place that makes an offer “embellished” their ad, just a mite. Lorenzo, played by that dashing EveryGaul François Cluzet, sheepishly admits this “charming” eatery with a “demanding clientele,” La Roptiere, is actually not a restaurant at all. It’s a youth hostel for migrants waiting to see if they qualify to get into French schools so that they can remain in France.
Cathy Marie’s struggling-actress pal (Fatou Kaba) nags her into taking the gig. But there’s this “nightmare” of a kitchen (mostly microwaves) and everything she’s to serve is canned.
“They love ravioli and soccer,” headmaster Lorenzo shrugs. We’ll soon see about that, starting with Cathy Marie opening the ravioli cans, dumping the canned sauce, washing and baking the individual raviolis and plating her dishes with a sauce she makes herself.
It only takes a couple of extra hours to manage that, which will never do.
What she wants are “fresh ingredients,” and Lorenzo dismisses her with an “eight Euros a head” budget, he doesn’t care what she serves with that. What she needs is “commis,” kitchen assistants — help. And that’s how a dozen of the eager-to-assimilate newcomers, teenage boys, come to join her in the kitchen and learn at the feed of a queen a cuisine.
One of the reasons “feel good” movies are comfort food is the reassuring familiarity of their formula. The obstacles begin with the food, the nuisance matronly fangirl teacher (Chantal Neuwirth) and the working conditions and spread to that one African Muslim boy who won’t be bossed around, especially by a woman.
“No religion, and no misogyny” in my kitchen, Cathy Marie decrees.
There’s a bit of education for the non-restaurateur viewer and the migrant kids as our chef compares her kitchen “brigade” to a soccer team, from front-of-house (“Defense!”) to garnish (“Striker!”) to dishwasher, who is, of course, in goal.
The story arc has our haughty chef take an interest in others, for once, and the not-quite-as-desperate-as-is-warranted kids warming to her, to French cooking and the culture they fled conflict and poverty to escape to.
The four credited screenwriters cook up a seriously moving Big Obstacle, right on cue to start the third act. And they deliver a finale that involves something you might expect — reality TV — but that still manages to deliver a delightful twist that will touch your heart.
Lamey makes Cathy Marie’s journey almost as moving as those of her young charges, who again as you might expect, share their homeland cuisine with our jaded chef. Cluzet’s presence is a sturdy comfort, and among the kids, the youngest (Yannick Kalombo), the most talented cook (Amadou Bah) and the hardest nut to crack (Mamadou Koita) make the sharpest impressions.
They ensure that this is one feel good movie that won’t make you mind reading subtitles, and that will almost certainly whet your appetite for a little haute cuisine when you’re done.
Rating: unrated, some profanity
Cast: Audrey Lamey, François Cluzet, Fatou Kaba, Chantal Neuwirth, Yannick Kalombo, Amadou Bah and Mamadou Koita
Credits: Directed by Louis-Julien Petit, scripted by Louis-Julien Petit, Liza Benguigui, Sophie Bensadoun and Thomas Pujol. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:37