In this week's edition of The New American Kitchen, we explore southern food through the eyes of trailblazer and Who's Who of Food and Beverage inductee, Nathalie Dupree. The James Beard Award winning chef tells the tale of her journey into the culinary world, talks tackling stereotypes faced by women in the restaurant industry and gives advice for anyone trying to follow in her footsteps.
Listen to our full chat with Nathalie Dupree above, and catch some of the highlights from our conversation below:
On when she discovered food was her calling: "My sophomore year of college I went to Harvard summer school and lived in an international boarding house. The cook got sick, and because I hadn't done my chores, I was asked if I wanted to take the cook's job for two weeks while she had an operation. I did and that was in 1958. At the time I called my mother and told her I wanted to be a cook, that I loved it--cooking a meal every night for close to 20 people. And she said oh my god--you'd have to work at night with men, lift heavy pots and ladies just don't cook. If you can find any lady that really is cooking in a restaurant besides the wife in an Italian family, a "mama mia," or someone in a boarding house--if you can find someone who's doing this in a way that would make a better life for that person--a good life--other than running the head of a house she would reconsider it. But there were no women. I could not find any women that were working in a restaurant that would fit what would have satisfied my mother. It took me another ten years. It took me till I married my favorite former husband and we moved to London to then go to the Cordon Bleu. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a cooking school and started a little business there, and then go to Majorca and become a chef--that was when I knew I didn't care about being a lady."
On women entering into the culinary world: "We were supposed to be secretaries, teachers, or nurses and we certainly weren't supposed to work at night with men. It was really a deterrent until I went to Europe and then at least saw women who were doing things like cooking for vacationers in Italy. A lot of the girls from Cordon Bleu would go over and work on a ship, not a ship, but a small yacht cooking all summer. Or go over to a vacation area and cart food for people at different vacation homes. I knew that at least there was a way to do this and make a career out of it to some degree, and these English girls were doing it. And that it was acceptable that they were "Cordon Bleus" quote unquote. England was really kind of ahead of us."
On the path she blazed for southern chefs: "Oh anyone can do what I did. I will say--just around the time I met my favorite former husband, which was in 1969 when I married him, I started affirming or praying--whatever you want to call it--the idea that women had the right to support themselves. And that women had the right to enjoy what they were doing and they did have the right to make the world a better place. And whenever women come to me, I say that, you know you really have a right to do this. This is there for you and no one should be able to deter you. I was really lucky that I got to support myself nicely, but that I never wanted to be rich. That was never my goal to be rich. My goal was just to have a good life. I missed a lot of the travail that I think other people have had. I saw the other day Paula Deen's house was up for sale for $12.7 million or something in Savannah and I thought gosh, you know, if I'd come later would I have been Paula Deen? And then I thought I never wanted that."
On what gives her the greatest happiness: "Teaching my students. Teaching on television was the same thing--when people come up to me as they do now, and as they did this week in Salt Lake City--which was a good market because I didn't use any alcohol on my television show. So, when people come up to me in all these places and say "you taught me how to cook," then I really think what a great life I've had and it makes it all worthwhile. Having people tell you that you gave them dominion over what they put in their body and what they put in the bodies of their family--what a wonderful thing. When chefs tell me they saw me when they were young children in front of the television set with their mother, that's really nice to hear--I really enjoy that. What means a great deal to me is teaching so many women to cook, and most of them were southern women, with this full time participation school--I was the only cooking school really in the south. I had hundreds and thousands of women that went out in the world, and so many of them now have written cookbooks."
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