The story takes place in 1671. In the context of the Franco-Dutch War, a financially struggling Louis, Grand Condé is visited by King Louis XIV for three days of festivities at the Château de Chantilly. The prince wants a commission as a general, and spares no expense in order to impress the king. In charge of organizing the event is François Vatel, Master of Festivities and Pleasures in the prince’s household. Vatel is a man of great honor and talent, but of low birth. As the great Condé is prepared to do anything in his quest for stature, the tasks assigned to Vatel are often menial and dishonourable. While Vatel tries to maintain his dignity amidst the extravaganza he is meant to orchestrate, he finds himself in love with Anne de Montausier, the king’s latest lover, who returns his affections. However, due to their incompatible social standing and the rigid hierarchy of the court, continuing the liaison is clearly impossible.
In the last day of the king’s visit, Vatel realizes that he is nothing more than a puppet in the hands of his superiors, bought and sold like a piece of property, after learning that the Prince of Condé has “lost” him in a card game with the king. Disheartened and refusing to leave his people (the servants of the Château) and go to work for the king, Vatel commits suicide by throwing himself on his sword. Nevertheless, the king is told by his own court members that Vatel killed himself because the roast was not sufficient to feed several unexpected guests, the clouds dulled the fireworks display and he lacked confidence that there would be enough fish for the morning meal. This explanation pleases the king very much. Anne de Montausier is grief-stricken upon hearing the news, but knows she must not speak of it. She leaves the court quietly, and no one ever hears about her and Vatel again.