The steaming chaos and viciously hurled epithets of such reality shows as “Top Chef” and “Kitchen Nightmares” thankfully have no place in “Kitchen Brigade,” which sees a gifted chef train eager amateurs with quiet hauteur, exacting shallot-slicing demands and, in time, a dose of kindness. The stakes are higher, too, in director Louis-Julien Petit’s amiable social dramedy: These young apprentices aren’t sharpening their skills merely to stay in a competition, but to stay in the country, threatened as they are with deportation if they can’t acquire relevant skills. The cruelties of the French immigration system lend a bitter back note to Petit’s otherwise upbeat heartwarmer — a mostly palatable affair that can’t wholly sidestep white-savior cliché in a rushed final course.
Petit’s previous three films — “Discount,” “Invisibles” and the Isabelle Adjani starrer “Carole Matthieu” — established his credentials as a maker of socially conscious entertainments, trading in themes of workers’ rights and welfare demands with a light, accessible touch. Turning to the topical subject of the European migrant crisis, “Kitchen Brigade” continues in the mold of those films, drawing viewers in with droll character comedy before hitting them with heavier matters — though an eleventh-hour flourish of reality TV satire is slightly less convincing. Released simultaneously in theaters and on demand in the U.S. this week, the film should prove easily digestible to fans of such crowdpleasers as “The Intouchables” — whose star, François Cluzet, is an affably rumpled supporting presence here.
In the lead, however, it’s the brisk, somewhat salty screen presence of character actor Audrey Lamy (also the star of Petit’s “Invisibles”) that gives “Kitchen Brigade” some welcome bite. She plays Cathy-Marie, a brilliant but intractable gastro-maestro weary of working as sous to celebrity chef Lyna (Chloé Astor), also the Gordon Ramsay-like star presenter of a TV cookery contest. When they lock horns over the seasoning of Cathy-Marie’s signature beet dish — in perhaps the most Gallic dispute ever put on film, one favors balsamic while the other insists on hibiscus — the hot-headed deputy quits, only to find equivalent kitchen gigs thin on the ground.
A job offer comes from a self-described “charming restaurant,” which instead turns out to be the dingy canteen of a migrant hostel overseen by jaded humanitarian Lorenzo (Cluzet). Appalled but resigned, Cathy-Marie gets to work, zhuzhing up the slimy canned ravioli favored by the institution’s predominantly African and South Asian residents, before drawing up a more ambitious menu that can only be realized with a little help in the kitchen — which is where these unskilled but enterprising young migrants come in, many of them bringing their own culinary traditions to the table. It isn’t long before Cathy-Marie’s brittle snobbery melts into a warmer spirit of collaboration and concern for these vulnerable youths, and she devises a high-risk scheme to secure their futures.
It’s mostly fleet-footed, good-humored stuff, buoyed by attractive but unobtrusive craft contributions: DP David Chambille wisely doesn’t go too glossy on the gastro-porn lensing, though one centerpiece meal — a vast lamb roast paraded around the dining hall, led by smoking rosemary branches — practically wafts off the screen.
Boisterously played by a bright young ensemble, Cathy-Marie’s gaggle of protégés are uniformly winning — a tad too uniformly, perhaps, as Petit’s script (co-written with Liza Benguigui, Sophie Bensadoun and Thomas Pujol) sketches their characters in superficial shorthand. Their collective backstories are dealt out in a single tear-jerking montage, while our French protagonist gets rather more interior creases and conflicts to work with. It’s an error common to well-meaning but fundamentally Western-oriented films of this genre, though a rather abruptly introduced denouement partly makes it up to the kids, with the head chef deliberately receding into the background as her charges seize the spotlight.