Danièle Delpeuch in conversation on Haute Cuisine (Les saveurs du Palais)

On mushrooms, Mitterrand, and going to Antarctica.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Danièle Delpeuch, personal chef to former French President François Mitterand, met with me for coffee at New York's famous Algonquin Hotel on a late summer morning to discuss the film based on her life. She told me how and when she became friends with Catherine Frot, the role Gault Millau's "Chef of the Century" Joël Robuchon played in her hiring, mushrooms and the price of freedom. Matilda, the lovely Algonquin cat, joined us halfway through our conversation.

Danièle Delpeuch told Anne-Katrin Titze "Everybody can find something personal in this film."
Danièle Delpeuch told Anne-Katrin Titze "Everybody can find something personal in this film." Photo: Tolley Haycock

Christian Vincent's Haute Cuisine, based on the true story of Danièle Delpeuch (Catherine Frot as Hortense Laborie), expertly opens up the doors to the kitchens where Monsieur le Président de la République (Jean d'Ormesson) resides.

Anne-Katrin Titze: In the movie, your alter ego is whisked away and doesn't know where she is going. She finds herself in this job, cooking for the President of France. Is that how it happened to you in real life?

Danièle Delpeuch: Absolutely. Until the last minute I didn't know. They didn't tell me because, how shall I say, they didn't put an ad in the paper. They were trying to find the right person and they didn't speak about it. It's a matter of state security. In fact, I didn't want to leave Périgord. I live 500 kilometers from Paris. I live in the farm where my father was born and my grandmother and everybody before. At this point I had an apartment in Paris. I found a message on my answering machine. They were talking about an "important state agent."

AKT: A functionary to cook for?

DD: Yes. In Paris. And I said, no, I didn't want to do that. I live in Périgord and my private life was complicated. That was [a meeting] with five people and they said let's meet with somebody else. At the last moment they came with a car and said we'll take you to Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, like in the film. And the man said: "55, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, do you know where that is? It's the Palace, Madame." Okay, anyway, the man was the head of the cabinet of the President.

AKT: Did you have a restaurant at home?

DD: No, I never had a restaurant. I gave cooking classes. I gave dinners at home. In people's homes. I traveled for this. I worked in the States, at a cooking school in the States for five years. I didn't want a restaurant. A restaurant is very difficult.

AKT: It's interesting how they knew that you would be the right one to cook for the head of state.

The Algonquin Hotel.
The Algonquin Hotel. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DD: It was Joël Robuchon who gave my name. Like in the film, they couldn't find the person to fit the job. At one point the Minister of Culture went to Joël Robuchon and said we want a woman from the countryside who would be capable to deal with the Palace. The President wants a woman like that, and we don't find one. And Joël Robuchon said, I know somebody, and gave them my card, because we knew each other.

At first only a mysterious presence, Hortense soon meets the powerful world leader who loves mushrooms and soups.

AKT: So, it was explicitly a woman Mitterand wanted as his private chef?

DD: The President wanted a woman.

AKT: So you had to fit both requirements? You had to be the right cook and have the personality to deal with the pressure of the position?

DD: A woman from the country and able to cope with the situation. Because being a good cook is not enough for the Palace.

AKT: The hostility of the male chefs, is that portrayed accurately in the film?

DD: In the film, Catherine (Frot as Hortense Laborie, the fictionalised version of Danièle Delpeuch) is a free person. When she was building the character, at first she didn't want to meet me. It was the first time she had to create a character with somebody existing. She said if I meet her, I couldn't create anything, because she's a real person. With the script, she was very troubled, she told me afterward. We became friends, very close friends. We had dinner, just the night before I came here. We see each other now, after the film we turned the page. Earlier, Catherine said, this woman, first she's in her farm in Périgord, then she goes to the Palace, then to the States, then she goes to Antarctica - this doesn't exist. She said to the director and the producer that a woman like that is a dream of people who write a script, a man. Once we met, we got along very well so she was free to create. She said, "I met a free woman." I know the price of being free. It means that you never know what is going to happen to you next. Since the beginning, I decided to do something with my life. I had four children to raise. At age 25 I had four children.

AKT: Are your children mentioned in the film? I don't remember that.

DD: No, I didn't want that. They were mentioned in the first script, but I didn't want that. It doesn't bring anything to good cooking. The film was supposed to be about the poetry of good cooking. About a cook, who is not interested in fame, which is my case. Or honors or competition. How this woman brings her cooking to the most beautiful kitchen in Paris, in France, to a man who is known to be a gastronome and she suddenly decides to go to Antarctica.

Matilda at the Algonquin Hotel keeping an eye out for the president.
Matilda at the Algonquin Hotel keeping an eye out for the president. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Hortense discovers that the President ate the green top of the carrot she prepared for him. I have a bird, and he is crazy about carrots with the green tops.

The president endears himself to Hortense when at the first lunch she prepares for him, we learn that he eats the carrot top. Any wise bird can tell you about it.

DD (laughs): Everybody can find something personal in this film. Carrot leaves, others like the cooking style, others that this woman is free. I like it. It's a light film. And deep.

AKT: Light and deep - like the cooking.

DD: Voilà, exactement!

AKT: Are there any favorite foods of François Mitterand that are not in the film that you can talk about?

DD: He was known to be a gastronome. And of course, I don't speak about it. It's paradise for a good cook.

AKT: Hortense wears very prominent necklaces in the film. I see, that you like to wear more than one necklace yourself.

DD: I said to Catherine, why do you have all these necklaces? She said: "It's you Danièle, you always have necklaces, one or two or three." It's true.

AKT: Is there something that is completely invented for the film?

DD: Yes. Hortense goes to Antarctica to clean herself from the Palace. No, in real life, there were ten years between the two things. I loved the Palace time. I didn't realise it was so difficult for the male chefs of the main kitchen. It had to be difficult but I didn't care. I was in my kitchen. My boss was the President.

AKT: Catherine Frot presents this perspective well.

DD: I think she is very beautiful. I like Catherine. She's a great actress and a lovely woman, a dear person. The first time I met her was very intimidating, because I said, if I like her - good. If I don't like her, it's going to be a disaster. And she told me that she was so intimidated.

Matilda, the famous Algonquin cat, saunters past.

DD: Look at the cat of the hotel! She belongs to the hotel. Sometimes she is at the top of the front desk, can you believe it? And she's cute!

AKT: She is. There was a big scandal about her.

Danièle Delpeuch: "Ah, yes, 22, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. We were at 55!"
Danièle Delpeuch: "Ah, yes, 22, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. We were at 55!" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DD: Her name is Matilda. There she goes. She's not intimidated. The hotel is a lovely place. It's the same since 1902.

AKT: We are in the second half of September. What shall I cook? I'll go to the market.

Watching Haute Cuisine, I had vivid flashbacks to my childhood and the joy of discovering little nests of cèpes and chanterelles nestled around trees among mossy patches in the forest.

DD: We have beautiful markets in my region. All the autumn harvest is starting now. Mushrooms and pumpkins. We are very rich in my region, rich in terms of gardening, vegetables, and all poultry. Cèpes are in season now.

AKT: I love cèpes and chanterelles, I used to pick them. How do you prepare your cèpes?

DD: Simply. Just like this, with garlic and parsley, you know. Slice the mushrooms not too thin and sauté for five minutes. And if you are very hungry, just crack one egg on top and voilà.

AKT: On my way here, I noticed for the first time the address on the label of my Lanvin jacket. I did buy it in New York, though.

DD (looks at it): Ah, yes, 22, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. We were at 55!

Christian Vincent's Haute Cuisine, is as earth shattering as a lip-smacking mushroom - you will want to have a good dinner afterwards.

The Weinstein Company releases Haute Cuisine in the US on September 20.

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