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Vatel, the Fish Suicide Guy

February 28, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Francois Vatel is remembered as the man who committed suicide because the fish didn't arrive on time for a banquet. To the French, this has made him something like a martyr to their national art, la grande cuisine. It was inevitable that they would eventually make a lush historical film about him: Roland Joffe's newly released "Vatel."

In the film, however, the real reason Vatel (Gerard Depardieu) commits suicide is not a shortage of fish but the way various loathsome aristocrats have been pushing him around. On top of that, the king has ordered Vatel to work for him at Versailles, while taking away his new girlfriend, Uma Thurman.

This Vatel is a working guy who hates the aristos. But Vatel killed himself by bracing a sword against a wall and running onto it-an aristocratic way of croaking yourself, as anybody who reads Shakespeare knows. Possibly Vatel, who would have been a poor nobody without his patrons, tended to identify with them.

The truth is, we don't really know much about Vatel. The suicide story comes mainly from the Marquise de Sevigne's gossipy letters to her daughter.

He was not a chef and might not have known how to cook at all. He was in charge of an office known as the bouche, which was responsible for everything from his employer's bedtime snacks to catering immense banquets, including all the entertainments that 17th century aristocrats loved: waterworks, fireworks, masques, stage illusions.

He held this office at the two great houses that rivaled Versailles for grandeur. First he worked for Nicolas Fouquet, who had enriched himself immensely as Louis XIV's finance minister and chief tax collector.

An ambitious fellow named Jean-Baptiste Colbert exposed some of Fouquet's crooked dealings, and Fouquet was imprisoned-with the intended result that Colbert became the new finance minister. However, there's an entertaining story that Vatel himself helped bring Fouquet down by catering such a lavish banquet that Louis XIV realized how much Fouquet had been stealing from him.

Then Vatel went to work for Louis II de Bourbon, the Prince de Conde. The prince was a man in Louis XIV's own style-harsh, arrogant, luxurious and a great patron of the arts.

In the film Vatel is accurately compared to a general because of his organizational skills. He actually faced some of the same problems generals did in those days. When Louis XIV made his fateful visit to the Prince de Conde, bringing along his entire entourage of 5,000, it created the same situation a general had to deal with when an army marched somewhere. In the absence of modern transportation, all food was local, and 5,000 new, very hungry mouths put a great strain on the local economy.

However, French officiers de la bouche were supposed to be on top of this. Three hundred years earlier, a certain Maistre Chiquart had written a book telling how many hundred hams you'd need for such an event, and how many hundred wagonloads of firewood, and how many parties of hunters you'd have to send out to shoot game and what kind of backup to have.

According to the Vatel story, on the first night of the king's three-day visit there wasn't enough roast meat for two of the 60 tables, and he tortured himself about it all night, certainly aware that an officier de la bouche shouldn't make such a mistake. It may be that the fish shortage did push Vatel over the edge the next day. Though losing Uma Thurman would be hard to take too.

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