Five minutes with Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch

By Nici Wickes

Daniele Mazet Delpeuch. Photo / Supplied
Daniele Mazet Delpeuch. Photo / Supplied

Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch's life could never be described as ordinary. The first woman to be appointed as private chef to president Francois Mitterrand at the l'Elysee palace, 14 months, at age 60, living in Antarctica as the chef at an all-male research station, and she counts Julia Child as a friend.

Her life as a culinary adventurer began when Daniele was living in the Perigord region at age 25 with four children. She made the decision that unless she turned her energy to something other than being a devoted mother, her life would be over, so she opened her farmhouse to guests and founded the now famous Foie Gras Weekend, a pioneering class teaching the region's cuisine, as well the Ecole d'Art et Tradition Culinaire du Perigord, the area's first cooking school.

The major turning point, however, came when she was recommended (by Michelin-star chef Joel Robuchon) as the first female to become the president's personal chef and in accepting, ruffled the feathers of the official in-house Elysee chef and staff.

Her fascinating story has now been made into a movie, Haute Cuisine, and we caught up with Daniele when she was in Auckland at the opening of the film, which screens as part of Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2013.

When did you decide to make a career out of cooking?

Cooking has never been a career for me - it is a passport for adventures.

When you watch the movie that is based on your two years cooking for the president, does it seem real?

Oui, but of course, it is done very well and after I saw it I thought about it a lot and realised that the atmosphere of the palace kitchen was portrayed in a very real way; hard but also very enjoyable to be the president's private chef.

How difficult was it to work in that kitchen, given that it was very male-dominated?

It was always MY kitchen but what made it difficult was to do with the attitudes of people and how willing they are to work with me. When I am in the kitchen, I am the boss and some people didn't like that.

Why did the president want to have a woman, for the first time, head up his kitchen?

Only he can answer that but I understood that he wanted a change and wanted to have someone who could "cook like his grandmother". I was very produce focused and the well-known chef Joel Robuchon recommended me because he was aware of my style of cooking.

You cooked at the palace for two years and then you went on to spend 14 months cooking in Antarctica, in another all-male environment - what was that like?

After I left the palace it took me a long time to get to Antarctica - I was a woman, too old (59 years) and there was a waiting list. But I got there. And when I did it was an intensely difficult time due to the solitude. There were only four boats that called in per year and if you didn't like some of the people at the base, you were unable to get away from them. Also, the food which was so important to me, was not so for the scientists.

The men didn't want comfort food to remind them of home, or to make a big deal of it.

They didn't really care about it in the way I thought they would, and that was hard.

How did you come to be friends with Julia Child?

She saved my life! One night I was giving a cooking presentation at the very prestigious Boston Culinary Guild. A friend had told me that if I made a mistake in front of such an important audience, my culinary career would be finished, so I was very nervous. At the beginning I noticed Julia Child in the audience as well as many other famous chefs.

During my introduction I said that I had heard that the women in the guild were "terrible chefs". In French 'terrible' means magnificent or terrific but there was a deadly silence as the audience thought I was insulting their cooking skills. Then Julia stood up and started telling the story of how words can have double meanings when translated and in the end everyone was laughing so much and I was very relieved! Julia then helped me on stage for the rest of the presentation, it was a huge success and we remained great friends after that.

Are you planning your next adventure?

I don't think in the past or the future, I take one adventure at a time so at the moment I am focused on touring to promote the movie but ... I can tell you that a project that has been presented to me that involves teaching young, orphaned Indian women to cook so that they may have some hope for their future and be able to support themselves and I think that sounds very exciting and worthwhile.

Haute Cuisine screens in Auckland Fri March 8 (Rialto) & Sat March 9 (Bridgeway) www.frenchfilmfestival.co.nz

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