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PARIS (Reuters) - For 40 years, Bernard Vaussion has stirred and sauteed, poached and parboiled, reduced and roasted for six French presidents and their guests. Now it's time to hang up the apron.
The head chef at the Elysee Palace, Vaussion retired on Thursday after preparing his final lunch for President Francois Hollande: crab with celery remoulade, tournedos steak with mushrooms, and a flaky 'millefeuille' pastry with raspberries.
He will be replaced by Guillaume Gomez, 35, who has already worked for 17 years in the kitchen that serves up the best of French cuisine to help the head of state soothe domestic tensions and smooth the way in international diplomacy.
On his last shift in the 500-square-metre kitchen, where hundreds of copper saucepans - some dating from the time of 19th century King Louis Philippe - are put to the flame each day, Vaussion said his latest boss had been easy to please.
"There's not a lot that he doesn't like," Vaussion said of the Socialist Hollande. "He's someone who likes to eat."
The president has put on weight in his 17 months in office.
Vaussion, who learned his craft from his mother, also a cook, has overseen a staff of 20 for the last nine years, all men except for a female pastry apprentice.
All the presidents for whom he cooked were gourmands" (food lovers), Vaussion said diplomatically, but "Mr (Jacques) Chirac had an appetite that was a bit more developed".
Under the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy, a weight-conscious jogger and teetotaler, cheese was no longer served. Roquefort, Camembert, Comte and Brie de Meaux were rehabilitated after Hollande was elected in May 2012.
"There's been a change in the past 15 years - the food is lighter. There are many fewer dishes with sauces. The sauces are lighter. We also steam things," said Vaussion.
The food at France's most sought-after dinner table must reflect changes in the wider culinary universe, Vaussion said, with fewer rich ingredients and a focus on simpler cooking.
"Luxury ingredients have disappeared, like truffles, lobster," he said in a nod to austerity that has also pared back the Elysee's wine cellar. Since Sarkozy, state auditors have overseen the presidency's spending on food and drink.
One challenge for the top chef has been discretion when it comes to revealing the presidents' favorite dishes.
"We try to avoid disclosing their favorites. Otherwise, he's going to be served the same meal everywhere whenever he travels," Vaussion said.
That was the case for Chirac, presented with 'tete de veau' or calf's head, on every trip after word leaked that he loved the traditional dish served with capers and pickled gurkins.
"I only made it for him two or three times (in 12 years) because he was always served it wherever he went."
Reporting By Alexandria Sage and pool reporter; Editing by Paul Taylor