How to feed a French president

Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch says Francois Mitterand has a passion for food, especially truffles. She should know - she was his personal chef at the Palace Elysee.

Australia's favourite food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliot, gets a sneak peak behind the scenes with a former French presidential chef.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to cook for a president, Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch knows. She was the first female chef to cook in France’s Elysee Palace under President Mitterand. Her tenure was controversial and fascinating – the stuff that movies are made of. As it happens, the new French film Haute Cuisine, coming to Australia in April, is based on her life.

One evening in Sydney, 140 diners were able to try some of the dishes that featured in the film. The event, held at the Sofitel hotel with its proud French tradition, was sold out – with a waiting list.

Humourous, warm and modest, the septuagenarian Danièle answers questions about her remarkable life and the film with candour.

“A the film was released people in fact didn’t want to hear that much about the palace,” she says.

“They just wanted to know who was the real cook, who was the actress playing the cook.”

The idea of a female chef ruffled feathers in the traditionally male-dominated French kitchens, but Danièle’s reaction is disarming.

“You know, I really love to be a woman and it never bothered me. I just don’t care! Most of the time, maybe because I love men so much, I don’t realise that they don’t like me!”

The first course is foie gras au torchon – something I ate a lot while in Montreal and Quebec City. It’s where de-veined foie gras is wrapped in cloth and then poached and sliced. It is served simply with an apple and ginger chutney and a delicately thin cacao nib tuile, which lends the foie gras additional sweetness without having the melting quality of chocolate.

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Foie gras au torchon, apple ginger chutney and cocao nib tuile

Danièle is considered the queen of foie gras and when asked what she thought of states like California banning foie gras, she says: ”If I were in California I would be a little upset but I live in France where a lot of farms, especially in south west of France, survive on raising geese for foie gras. It’s almost in our genes and I respect any ideas about that. Personally I still love foie gras very much.”

The main course is President Mitterand’s favourite: choux farci au saumon, a layered dish comprising of a whole cabbage, twice blanched and filled with one centimetre-thick salmon pieces. The cabbage is wrapped in about a metre of cheesecloth and plunged into salmon stock, then simmered for 15 minutes and sliced into cake-sized portions. Accompanying it are goose fat-stewed carrots. It’s a comforting dish and quite mild in flavour. I think everyone at the table wonders how it is made.

Before dessert, Danièle comes out to talk to diners. This is her second visit to Australia – the first was 23 years ago.

When asked what it was like to become President Mitterand’s personal chef, she says: “It was a very interesting moment. Can you imagine? I live in the middle of nowhere – a lovely, lovely place, but it’s a simple place in the middle of the forest. One day, one morning, they come to pick me up and by the end of the day I become the chef de cuisine de la President – the President’s cook. It’s a big surprise and I really liked it very much because the President was a gastronome and he knew what he wanted, so it’s a miracle for a cook when your boss knows what he wants.”

Her only brief was to cook ‘grandmother style’ for the President – whom she calls “easy-going”.

”When I was asking for directions, nobody told me what to do, so I had no idea. It was the first time I had met a president and I asked, and he said, ‘If you cook simple things like my grandmother was doing, I’ll be very happy’. And I said, ‘Monsieur Le President, nobody can cook as a grandmother, but I’ll try!’”

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Preparing dessert in Sydney's Sofitel kitchen

One diner asks her to recount a historical meal.

“I had the privilege to make the only dinner that the president gave at his private home,” she says.

“It was just before the Berlin wall fell down. He asked me to make this dinner for Monsieur Gorbachev and Madame Gorbachev. It was in 1989. There was Monsieur and Madame Gorbachev, President and Madame Mitterand and two interpreters. I proposed menus with truffles [Mitterand’s favourite ingredient ] and I made something silly: I made an entree, a soufflé. As you may know, a soufflé can’t wait. When a soufflé is cooked you must serve the soufflé…[but] the menu was decided and the police said yes – so the menu couldn't change.”

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