She knows ‘Haute Cuisine’ from the roots up

September 20, 2013


As you watch actress Catherine Frot remove and slice the salmon-stuffed cabbage in the film “Haute Cuisine,” it seems like an impossibly gorgeous and complicated dish – steaming and gorgeously layered with the pinkish-orange fish and the warm green of the cabbage leaves.

Beautiful? Perhaps. Difficult? Not really, says Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, upon whose life the French import, opening today in limited release (9/20/13), is based.

“Stuffed cabbage is very simple – but instead of stuffing, you use salmon and seasoning,” she says, sipping a glass of water in the lobby of New York’s Algonquin Hotel. “I gave them a list of recipes for the film and this one is so simple: a layer of salmon, then a layer of cabbage and so on. You tie it up and you poach it – so simple. You cook it in a broth, because salmon cannot go long being cooked in an oven.”

The petite, compact Mazet-Delpeuch, in her early 70s, is in town to talk about “Haute Cuisine,” a film loosely based on two of her experiences: as personal chef for French president Francois Mitterand from 1988-90, and her year-long-plus tenure as cook for a research lab on an island off Antarctica. Asked why the character based on her (played by Frot) doesn’t have her name, Mazet-Delpeuch chuckles and waves it off.

“It’s not a biography – it’s a film, about simple cooking,” she says. “It’s the kind of woman’s cooking that everybody knows about but nobody knows how to do. It’s nice dining-room cooking. It can be very simple or it can be more sophisticated in terms of traditional food – but lighter, with nothing heavy. It’s a kind of poem.”

Mazet-Delpeuch was living in her native Perigord region of France, where she raised geese (for foie gras) and sheep and cooked the recipes passed down to her by her mother and grandmother. She’s been teaching cooking since the mid-1970s, which is how she came to the attention of noted chef Joel Robuchon. Robuchon recommended her to Mitterand, who complained to the master chef that he needed someone who could cook the kind of food he remembered from his childhood.

haute cuisine

“He said, ‘I’m fed up with the cuisine de chef’,” Mazet-Delpeuch says. “It was just after the start of his second term. When Joel heard that the president wanted a woman to cook for him, he said, ‘I know someone.’”

The film depicts her character as a no-nonsense cook with exacting standards but deceptively simple tastes and technique developed by a life spent in the kitchen: “I was in charge of his private meals – for him and friends and, sometimes heads of state,” she says. “The ambiance was different than what I was used to, but it was cooking.”

Ten years after her tenure in the Elysee Palace, Mazet-Delpeuch wound up at a research station on an island off the coast of Antarctica. She spent 14 months there as head cook because, as she says, “I needed a change in my life.”

“I was looking for something different and I went on the Internet, where I found an ad and applied,” she says. “It was not easy. It was a year with a group of men on an island, where there are four boats a year. There are no flights, no way to escape, no way to come home.

“It was a very cold place and they don’t accept women usually. They say it’s more for men. But I found that young men, separated from their family and friends, become very fragile. Women are more solid. And, if you sign a contract for 14 months, you have to be there and do what you have to do.”

The combination of time-demands of the modern world and the convenience that comes with microwave-ready food, restaurant culture and take-out would seem to diminish the interest in the kind of cooking that Mazet-Delpeuch grew up with. Not so, the feisty Frenchwoman says.

“It doesn’t disappear,” she says. “It is the base of French classic cuisine. In France, traditional cooking is different according to different regions. Gastronomy is the art of feeding people; at least I think it’s an art. Nobody can go through life without being connected to art.”

Still, Mazet-Delpeuch doesn’t have a lot of time for the high-end cooking that sets restaurants in search of Michelin stars and turns chefs into celebrities and even “molecular gastronomists.”

“I was never in competition,” she says. “Why would I have the ambition to be better than my friends? Everybody is unique.”

When restaurants like the now-shuttered, impossible expensive El Bulli in Spain (and its distinctive chef, Ferran Adria) are mentioned, Mazet-Delpeuch says, “If you find people to pay for that, why not? But it’s beside the real world. It’s a moment. It’s over. The media makes things happen like that. Some people are artists. There’s only one Picasso. There’s only one El Bulli.

“When someone says, well, the best restaurant in the world is in Norway, I wonder, according to what? What are the criteria? There are millions of small restaurants all over the planet where you can eat simply and the food tastes good.”

She recently visited Japan for the first time and was taken by its cuisine: “I knew immediately that my body needed this food,” she says. “It’s so simple – fish, no fat, green tea. I like it so much that I thought, ‘This can be my diet.’ Still, sometimes, I have to have my rich diet to please me. A healthy diet includes pleasure, too.”

Asked if she has a food that’s a guilty pleasure, Mazet-Delpeuch laughs and says, “What a strange question. I don’t live with guilt. Life is too short. You make mistakes but don’t feel guilty about them. My chef in France used to say that there are only two kinds of cooking: good and bad.”

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