What’s it like to stand in the Daily Meal Test Kitchen with one of France’s most important culinary icons and taste her freshly made dessert while she looks on? Actually, more low-key than it sounds. In fact, the cook in question—Danièle Delpeuch—insists that she is not a chef at all, despite her rather impressive feat of becoming the first woman to ever cook within the Élysée Palace walls during her two years as personal chef to former President Francois Mitterrand. The friendly and incredibly humble Ms. Delpeuch traveled to New York this week to attend the premiere of "Haute Cuisine," a Weinstein Company production based on her time at the Élysée and subsequent yearlong stint as a lunchroom cook at a French base in Antarctica. The film itself is a delight, starring Catherine Frot as Hortense Laborie (the character based on Ms. Delpeuch) and Jean d'Ormesson as President Mitterrand. On Tuesday September 17, Ms. Delpeuch (who prefers to be referred to simply as Danièle) graced the Test Kitchen to recreate one of Mitterrand’s favorite desserts, "Floating Islands," a divine confection of whipped egg whites that lay like mounds of soft snow atop a sauce of milk and sugar. The simply made dessert also reminds Ms. Delpeuch of her own childhood in the South of France. So it was over this treat that the beloved cook was kind enough to talk about her experiences with Examiner.com.
Here are a few highlights from our interview:
We loved the film, and this dessert (Floating Islands) is delicious. So it is just egg whites, and what is the sauce made with?
Danièle: Sugar, milk, eggs, and…viola!
That’s our favorite part of French desserts--they are so simple.
Danièle: Yes, and egg is beautiful. Egg is magnifique. You do so many things with eggs, whether beating them or not.
We loved the film. When you saw it for the first time, did you feel that it really reflected your experience?
Danièle: I didn’t receive the idea of the film like it was going to be an exact biography. In fact, to start, I didn’t believe that my life could make a film. I thought my life was interesting, but I didn’t realize until I saw the film, why the actress Catherine [Frot] told me that I had to adopt what actors learn in school, which is to separate real life from the actor’s life. So I don’t see Catherine, I see clearly Hortense [the character based on Delpeuch]. She is an interesting woman, and she is very close to me, and the character is not me, but [at the same time] it is me. So I just forget about the whole thing and enjoy the movie, and voila! And I think it’s a charming film, and the food is beautiful. It respects the courage and the audacity of Hortense. And after the film, I thought, Yes! I feel like an artist, like Hortense.
We were so hungry watching the movie, the food looked amazing! Were those really the dishes you would cook for the president?
Danièle: (Laughing) Oui, bien sûr. I made the list of the dishes for them to choose. But of course, you know, I spent two years in addition to my fifty years of cooking…so you have to squeeze fifty years of cooking into half an hour of film. But I like it, it’s charming and it makes people happy. All over the planet, I must say, because I travel a lot and in different cultures it makes people happy.
Did the President have a favorite dish?
Danièle: He was known to be a gastronome.
We loved the scene when Hortense talks to the President about dishes bringing us back to our childhood, and the way food can be a nostalgic thing. Is there something that you eat that brings you back to your childhood?
Danièle: This! [Referring to the Floating Island dessert she has just cooked for the group]. We were making this all the time when I was younger. It’s what you do when you have simple ingredients. I’m a cook, I’m not a chef. Like in the film, when Hortense says “Don’t call me a chef!” She’s not a chef, and I’m not a chef. I never feel like that, and I never wear the white coat of chefs.
You’ve mentioned the hard time the chefs in the President’s Main Kitchen gave you as a woman working in the Elysee. How did you deal with that?
Danièle: Not only me, it was that time in general. Now things have changed, well I’m 71, and 40 years ago that was normal. You know, as women, we may have to stay very modest, but we have to say the [important] thing anyway. Because if we don’t say it, people forget about it.
When you cook for yourself now, what do you like to make if you’re just having dinner on a normal night?
Danièle: I cook very simply, and this summer, I’ve been very much into Japanese food. I like rich food like foie gras, and generous food like in the film, but I can’t eat that way all the time of course. Japanese food is so good with its noodles, soups, green tea, and sushi.
Did you travel to Japan recently? Do you travel a lot?
Danièle: Yes, twice recently to promote the film. I travel a lot, (laughing) almost too much.
Living in Antarctica seemed very interesting. What drew you to do that in the first place?
Danièle: It was a moment when I didn’t have any precise thing to do. After leaving the Élysée, I said, What now? I need to make a living, so what’s next? And I found an ad on the Internet to go to Antarctica, and I wanted to go.
What was your favorite part of living there?
Danièle: It was difficult. I didn’t have any favorite part; it’s just that it gave me the time to go inside myself for awhile. [. . .] It was very difficult, and I was glad when it was the end. That was enough. One year was long. It was an adventure.
“Haute Cuisine” opens in theaters this Friday, September 20th.
Brigid Ronan contributed reporting.