This story focuses on a lavish dinner that a French servant woman named Babette prepares for a group of pious ascetics in an isolated Norwegian village on Sunday, December 15, 1883. The events leading up to this feast take many years to develop.
Martine and Philippa’s father founded a religious sect respected throughout Norway that strictly denied the value of all earthly things, insisting that charity toward the poor and preparing for heaven were the only meaningful activities on earth. In their small and isolated village, Martine and Philippa adhere to their father’s teachings along with a small group of his followers. The two beautiful sisters pass from their childhood into adulthood facing only two earthly temptations: At eighteen Martine is wooed by young Lieutenant Lorens Loewenhielm; a year later, Philippa spurns the advances of the famous opera singer Achille Papin, who meets her while vacationing near their village. Having rejected earthly love in order to maintain their focus on spiritual matters, Martine and Philippa continue to lead the small group of ascetics after their father dies.
Fifteen years after rejecting their suitors, Martine and Philippa are joined by a French woman named Babette, who appears at their doorstep exhausted, wild-eyed, and impoverished after escaping political turmoil in Paris. A letter from Achille Papin states simply that Babette "can cook." For twelve years Babette serves Martine and Philippa without pay, preparing for them and their flock the austerely simple meals that their religion demands.
One day, Babette receives a letter from Paris informing her that she has won ten thousand francs in a lottery. Her news coincides with Martine and Philippa’s plan to celebrate the one-hundredth birthday of their father on December 15.
Babette makes her first request in twelve years—to prepare a real French dinner for the celebration at her own expense. Although Martine, Philippa, and their followers fear sinful luxury and extravagance in such a meal, they reluctantly accept her offer, secretly vowing among themselves to take little notice of the food and drink.
When the feast day arrives, Lorens Loewenhielm, now an aging general, becomes the twelfth guest. In the village to visit his aunt, an original member of the religious sect, he attends the dinner with her in order to honor Martine and Philippa’s father. As a member of the French aristocracy, Loewenhielm is the only guest at the table who appreciates the magnificence of Babette’s meal. By its end, he realizes that Babette was once a renowned Parisian chef.
After the feast and the departure of the guests, Martine and Philippa expect Babette to announce her return to Paris, where she can live as a rich woman with her ten thousand francs; however, Babette declares that she will stay with them in Norway. In any case, she has spent all of her winnings on the feast. She explains that as a chef she is an artist and that she is happy to remain as their servant because she has been a great artist one last time.