Her two-year stint inside the Elysée Palace as the first-ever female chef of a French president isn’t the most interesting thing about Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch. Nor the fact that someone made a film (Haute Cuisine) about it. In fact, that was so 25 years ago.
From the energy of her speech and, for emphasis, the odd squeeze of her interviewer’s arm, one soon learns Danièle, 71, is a woman of many dreams. Yet being poached by the government to cook for President François Mitterrand was not one of them. 'I never applied to do that [job]. It just found me," says Danièle. "A president, for the first time in history, allowed a woman to enter the kitchen at the Palace. It was a gift, a complete gift. I really loved the moment at the Palace. It was very, very interesting. But two years was enough."
Her description of this period as a 'moment" reveals a glimpse into the chef's working philosophy: 'I do not dedicate my life to cooking at all," says Danièle, whose last meal was roasted guinea fowl wrapped in cabbage leaves, which she prepared for a Swiss journalist. "For me, cooking is a passport for adventures. And, as in all of them, you have a beginning, a middle and, of course, an end." Thus, she resigned before her two-year contract with Mitterrand was up.
Following this, her whim led her to Antarctica – no easy feat since those in charge were adamant they wanted a man for the job. Her bold insistence (to those hiring, she declared, "I'm going there") and no doubt her former job title – "chef du président" – secured her the role and had her cooking for scientists on a French research base.
The film Haute Cuisine, based on Danièle's time at the Palace and her subsequent job choice, raises the question, 'Why Antarctica?", on the other side of the world, completely isolated, not to mention unfriendly to crops. 'When you have success in something, [people] propose many different things," says Danièle. "After a while, you don’t even have time for yourself, you know? To be silent inside of yourself. To find out who you are and what you’re doing in life. I think that’s why I applied to go to Antarctica, because it was far. Only four boats a year; I couldn’t come back."
For someone who runs a cooking school for most of the year in Périgord and who recently planted 300 truffle trees at her farm ('Not big trees, but big holes," she points out), it’s surprising to hear that what Danièle really cherishes is time spent outside the kitchen. Interestingly, she has a soft spot for life Down Under. 'I like this place because it’s very dynamic and [there’s] a lot of energy here. Only on this side of the world do I find that. And I like it because it makes a good balance with my sweet, quiet art of living in the countryside in France."
It was during another of her 'adventures" that she hatched her latest plan: To start a truffle farm away from home. 'I love this part of the world – Australia and New Zealand – so I made some research to find a place to plant here, because they only grow in winter. This is a project to eat truffle all year round," she says. How the idea came about is telling of Danièle's impulsiveness: While in Antarctica, she sent out a simple message in a bottle, advising its finder to contact her. The bottle arrived on the south coast of New Zealand – the north island – in a wine region, no less. "When they found it, they wrote to me and I said, 'Well, I have to go there to plant truffles'."
When asked which other ingredients she loves, she replies, 'As much as truffles? Nothing. J’adore. Potatoes, maybe." And her favourite way to eat this expensive subterranean fungi? Without fuss: 'I like to bite into the truffle. And with a slice of bread spread with butter." This fact informs a scene in Haute Cuisine, whereby Hortense (the film's Danièle) prepares this rich man’s toast for a peckish President Mitterrand.
At this point, without prompting, Danièle discloses a flaw: 'I have a big problem. I’m interested by so many things." A taste for new experiences might not sound troubling, but is when grandchildren are involved. Referring to the exhaustive travel in the promotion of Haute Cuisine (which saw her jet-set to Israel, Canada, New Zealand and Eastern Europe), she confesses: 'I can’t go like this all over the world and not spend time with my grandchildren. Life is too precious."
Reflecting on the impressive life she's cooked up, surely there remains a highlight. She shakes her head. 'I never look back. Why? Because the present is so fascinating and the future, even more so." Despite her years, it’s hard to say what kind of woman Danièle is yet to become or which lands she'll traverse (a project based in India is now in her sights), for 45 minutes spent in her company has revealed that she is still in the making, and not yet made.
Haute Cuisine opens in cinemas around Australia 25 April. Watch the trailer