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A quail on a plate on a table that’s elaborately set.
Quail is one course of seven in the recreation of Babette’s Feast.
Tao Group

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Who Else But Tao to Create an Over-the-Top ‘Babette’s Feast’?

The dinner was in honor of the film’s 35th anniversary

It’s surprisingly hard to recall a feast from a movie that I’d want to recreate. Lavish cinematic feasts are so often precursors to the tragic — a gutting realization, a thwarted desire, a massacre — that bringing them into the real world feels like inviting chaos. There are exceptions, though, and they are fun to imagine. The timpano, enormous and delectable, from Big Night. Braised pork and dumplings and hot pot from Eat Drink Man Woman.

But the queen of them all is the meal that caps Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel’s 1987 movie, which premiered at Cannes and won an Oscar. Based faithfully on Isak Dinesen’s 1958 story, it’s a densely layered tale about memory, longing, artistry, exploring the depths of how sensual pleasure can change a person. Recreating that feast requires precision and an encyclopedic knowledge of French cooking to rival its titular creator, who, Dinesen tells us, was not mere chef but “great artist,” renowned among the Paris elite. I’m a handy cook, but I would never attempt it; I don’t know where to get a turtle for the soup, nor would I know what to do with it when it arrived.

Search the internet and you’ll find people trying their hand at the dinner over the years; for my part, I got lucky. On the evening of March 29, to mark the 35th anniversary of the film, Cathédrale at Moxy East Village hosted a one-night recreation of the feast under the direction of Ralph Scamardella, Tao Group Hospitality’s culinary director, with chef Jason Hall at the helm.

A crowd of very eager diners gathered, and the feeling in the room was almost euphoric. Tables with carefully arranged tableaux of fruits, candles, and flowers placed throughout made it feel like we might have walked into a fairyland. If you’ve seen Babette’s Feast, you know what you’re in for: a menu that’s married to the expectation of some kind of personal revelation. In the movie, Babette has been keeping house for 15 years for a pair of kind Danish sisters in a tiny village, daughters of a devoutly ascetic man who founded a Christian sect. Nobody is quite sure where Babette came from, aside from France; she simply arrived one day, needing work, and the sisters took her in.

But a friend of Babette’s has renewed her lottery ticket every year back in her home country, and one day the news arrives that Babette has won 10,000 francs (or a little over $1,600). She begs the sisters, who are now certain she will leave them and return home, to let her cook a meal in honor of their late father’s 100th birthday. With great reluctance, they agree; they’ve subsisted for years on the same simple meal: bread-and-beer soup and simple cod, designed to avoid distracting the faithful from their devotion to God and heavenly matters. Who knows what this French woman will decide to make for them? They can hardly turn her down, not after so many years of faithful service.

So the plans are in place, a dozen people are invited, and Babette sets to work cooking this meal for people who’ve eschewed everything earthly and delicious.

A trio of blini with caviar. Tao Group
A tureen of turtle soup, with a server pouring the broth into the bowl. Tao Group
A dessert framed with sliced figs Tao Group

Savarin au rhum.

Babette’s Feast is something of a cult classic, 35 years after it first appeared, and those who love it can repeat this menu to one another like an incantation. The spell, printed in a program, appeared at every place setting, nestled between white tapers in candelabra. The room felt like the home of the Danish sisters in the midst of a cold winter, as if we were actors in an immersive theater production centered around a multi-course meal.

Turtle soup was rich and creamy, studded with meat and croutons, and served here in small tureens. (There was a faux option.) Amontillado sherry was (which, in the story, a diner proclaims the greatest he’s ever tasted) perfectly paired.

A trio of tiny blini, with their sour cream and caviar; the quail en sarcophage, with its little legs crossed, surrounded by quartered figs, foie gras included, endive salad served on the side. Savarin au rhum avec des figues et fruit glacee followed — much like baba rhum, with figs and candied cherries — accompanied by Champagne. The proper wines, with a few swaps, were served throughout. (The precise wine is, to Babette, crucial.)

In Babette’s Feast, the meal is not just a meal. At its table are people who need, desperately, to remember that they are human, to recall a past they’ve tried to push away. There are a pair of former friends who’ve held a grudge over whether or not one of them stiffed the other in the past; buoyed by wine and good cheer, they reconcile. A pair of lovers, the flame of whose long-ago affair has never quite burned out, finally find comfort in a kiss. One of the guests is a general who, many years ago, had loved one of the sisters; he recognizes the cooking as Babette’s and realizes, with wonder, that he has stumbled inadvertently into heaven.

What I love about movies, the reason I spend my life on them, is that they invite us to exist in the same space for a while, bumping shoulders, hearing one another breathe, and turn our attention toward a gift that an artist wants to give us.

I am not going to tell you I experienced a supernatural revelation or healed a rift with my worst enemy at Cathédrale. But here is what I did feel: that this recreation of one of my favorite meals, a scene from one of my favorite movies, was the product of skilled artists watching the film, recognizing its power — a short glimpse of a future vision. In that sense, it is grace, a word I rarely associate with Manhattan’s fine dining.

I left suspecting the overlapping experiences were what made it so lovely. Something we’d loved together — a strange little Danish film from the 1980s, about a strange little Danish community in 19th-century Denmark — was layered into textures and flavors and small, extravagant touches there for no other reason than to evoke, in Dinesen’s words, a vision of the universe as it really is. Or how it could be, if we were attentive enough to look for it every day.

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