'Cooking is not easy': Haute Cuisine tells the story of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch's life.
FROM BEING SUMMONED TO cook for France's president Mitterrand to preparing meals at an Antarctic base, Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch has had a colourful career in the kitchen.
Twenty-five years ago, the vibrant Frenchwoman was living on her farm in the Perigord region in south-western France, with a cooking school specialising in geese, when she heard news that changed her life.
The newly re-elected president told an adviser he wanted ''a woman from the French countryside to head my kitchen and cook like my grandmother'' and Michelin-starred chef Joel Robuchon had recommended her.
World flavour: Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, in Australia for the opening of a film about her time as chef to the French president. Photo: Brendan Esposito
''At the palace, there were 17 very, very high-level chefs and they just didn't understand why he'd say that,'' she says. ''But he said 'I want a woman', so they had to find a woman.''
Mazet-Delpeuch, now a sparkling 71-year-old, quickly found herself swept from the quiet countryside to the Elysee Palace, upsetting the official order as she learnt how to feed a demanding boss.
It's a story dramatised in the French film Haute Cuisine, with Catherine Frot (from The Page Turner and The Dinner Game) as the cook and novelist Jean d'Ormesson as Le President.
Mazet-Delpeuch's first meal for Mitterrand was choux farci au saumon (salmon-stuffed cabbage).
And while she was initially intimidated, the president eventually came to visit her in the kitchen during relaxed moments to talk about food and escape politics. He became ''a confidant but distant'', with a taste for simple food perfectly prepared.
''He was regarded as a gastronome and was very strict in his choices. He wanted the best - no mistake - and that's paradise for a cook,'' Mazet-Delpeuch says.
After the Berlin Wall collapsed, Mazet-Delpeuch cooked truffles in crusts and beef fillet with a madeira sauce for the Mitterrands, the Gorbachevs and two interpreters at a rare official dinner in the president's private home.
Observing from the kitchen gave her no love for politics. ''I live in the country,'' she says. ''I prefer normal relations with people.
''I would have loved to go back to the great moment when people in politics wanted happiness for everybody and democracy. We're quite far from all these concepts.''
While she enjoys cooking all kinds of dishes, Mazet-Delpeuch is a great advocate of fresh produce. ''My specialty is to try to make people happy with my cooking, using the ingredients around me,'' she says.
Having told Mitterrand she wanted to finish before her two-year contract was up, Mazet-Delpeuch happily returned to her farm. A decade later, she applied for another job, at a French Antarctic base, cooking for up to 60 scientists and maintenance crew.
''I thought I needed adventure so I went on the internet and found something in Antarctica,'' she says. ''When I first called, the lady said, 'You have no chance' because they don't take women.
"Then she said, 'How old are you?' I said, 'I'm almost 60'. She said, 'You have no chance at all' because they don't take anyone over 30.
''I said, 'You didn't ask if I could do the job but I can't apply because I'm a women of 60?' I'm going there.''
The spirited cook got the job.
Preparing meals in the Antarctic meant relying on freezers, supplies that arrived four times a year, herbs, radishes and tomatoes grown in greenhouses at the base.
''In Antarctica, they didn't want home food,'' Mazet-Delpeuch says. ''Home food reminded them of home.
''I learnt the people who organised the base from Paris felt a woman was too fragile. But I know that men, especially 30 years old, are not that strong being separated from their family, especially young children.
''They were there for work for six months or a year. Home food was too emotional for them, so it was good food but simple food.''
So what does she think of TV cooking shows such as MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules?
''I hate competition,'' Mazet-Delpeuch says. ''I think it doesn't bring anything good to anybody, especially in cooking. Why would somebody be better than his friend? I don't believe in this. Everybody tries to say, 'I'm a cook'. But in France, it takes a life to become a chef. When you see this on television, it says to everybody 'cooking is easy'. Cooking is not easy.
''Life taught me. I'm from a line of very good cooks, so maybe it was in my genes.''
Mazet-Delpeuch is just as hardline about her cooking school (La Borderie near Brive La Gaillarde in the Dordogne region), recently scrapping its website.
''I'm easy to find because of the film. I want people to make the effort, find my address and write and say, 'Well, I'm visiting France and I'd like to register' and we have a normal dialogue instead of this modern thing which keeps you away from person-to-person communication.''
Haute Cuisine screens during the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival (limited screenings in Melbourne and Sydney from March 16) before a cinema release on April 25. In Canberra, it screens at the Palace Cinema in New Acton, at 6.30pm on Saturday, March 16, and 4pm on Sunday, March 24.