You may recognize Nathalie Dupree as author of Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking and the South’s biscuit whisperer. What you may not realize is that she’s spent her entire career helping other women learn how to hone their culinary skills and turn those talents into a means to support and even surprise themselves. Nathalie recently shared her story with us. We think you’ll understand why she’s considered a Southern treasure.
These days, it’s no surprise the array of talented female cookbook authors, restaurant chefs, Instagrammers, TikTokers, TV chefs, and bloggers whose creativity informs your cooking. And it can be easy to take this accessibility for granted and assume that sharing one’s culinary artistry is something of a birthright. It wasn’t always that way. And then a select few tenacious and talented women succeeded, decades ago, in entering the predominantly male restaurant and cooking scene and making the way for others who have followed.
Nathalie Dupree is one of those women. Her career canvasses cookbook author, TV star, Southern cooking proponent, restaurant chef, and being named a James Beard Who’s Who in America. But more than anything else, Nathalie has gone out of her way to share her knowledge with others so that they could, in turn, pursue their passion. She’s long been a beloved teacher of cooking whose students—many who became chefs, cookbook authors, business owners, and TV personalities—have regaled us with stories of her wit, wisdom, and kindness. Nathalie was kind enough to talk with us on a couple of occasions this last year about making a career out of cooking, learning from her mistakes, and acting out of graciousness in the face of each turn life takes. Here’s what she shared.—Renee Schettler
How Nathalie decided to cook rather than be a “lady”
LC: Nathalie, how did it all start? Tell us the story of your very, very first foray into professional cooking.
Nathalie: Sure. It was after my sophomore year at college in Boston and I had gone up there for summer school. I moved into an international student house. We all had to have an assignment while living there and the cook had to have an operation and was going to be gone. And I had not done very well at the other assignment, which was forwarding letters. I just did what my mother always had done, which was to throw envelopes in the top drawer. And, well, this was ’58, I guess. Anyway, two of the boys came back to find their letters saying that they had to show up for the draft the next day. I was taken off of that duty. I didn’t do that one very well.
So I took over as the cook. There were 18 of us, I think we paid $16 a month for one meal a day, or maybe it was the opposite and there were 16 of us and we paid $18 a month. But the first day, I was doing tuna fish casserole and I multiplied everything by three to make a sufficient amount. And that’s when I learned that you don’t always multiply by three when you’re multiplying up the amounts in a recipe. You don’t need three times as much fat to saute three times as many onions.
Nathalie: So in fact, what happened was that I wound up with a layer of grease and then I had some gloppy kind of sauce. I hadn’t realized that the body of the recipe changes at the same time that the ingredients change. So if you have three times as many ingredients, you have to stir over the heat longer, it’s going to take you longer than what the recipe says. So the white sauce or the sauce that was in my tuna fish casserole was all thick and gloppy, but it hadn’t really cooked. And then underneath it was the tuna fish sitting on the bottom of the dish. Rather than being tuna fish casserole, it became tuna fish à la king. And that was the last time I multiplied a recipe by three. If you’re going to increase the recipe, I suggest you try doubling twice rather than trying to multiply by four or by three.
LC: But if I’m not mistaken, you realized that you had found your calling and you told your mom that you were going to be a cook. And what did your mother say?
Nathalie: Well, she said that she had tried very hard to make me a lady, which was true. She had tried, and that ladies didn’t cook, and that I would have to work at night with men and that it would be an abusive situation, she thought, and I would have to lift heavy pots and so forth. And so she said, “This is the only thing I’ve ever told you I don’t want you to do.” If I could find someone, a lady that’s running a restaurant that was cooking in the kitchen of a restaurant that wasn’t just a diner or a Mamma Mia where she had her whole family there, but that was actually working, then she would support my decision.
Of course, it was ’58 or early ’59, and I couldn’t find any lady cooking in a restaurant. And so I didn’t try to do it anymore. I just cooked at home and waited. I had held jobs as secretaries and girl Fridays and I was not a very good secretary. If you can’t forward the mail, you’re not destined to be a good secretary.
LC: That does prove to be a problem.
Nathalie: Yes. So the thing I did the best was cook, and really there just wasn’t anyone else. I did know a French woman that owned a restaurant, but she ran the front and an Italian woman cooked. So I didn’t do anything until I married my favorite former husband and he and I moved to London because he got a job there. And that’s when I went to the Cordon Bleu and got my degree and decided I didn’t want to be a lady anymore.
Teaching women how to do more than just “please a man”
LC: And I think this is very interesting. They called them “Brides’ Courses” when you were in London. Is that correct?
Nathalie: Right. Well, that was one of the courses I took. I had started out taking twice-a-week courses as any lady would for the Brides’ Courses, and I did that for two 12-week courses or whatever. And then I went on to the advanced certificate because I wanted to keep studying. But the Brides’ Course was really a pretty good course. We met every day and you certainly learned enough to run an English household.
LC: And enough to run your own cooking school, which you went on to do. What compelled you to teach?
Nathalie: I mean, I didn’t have any teaching experience. I only had a year and a half of college, so at the time that I started teaching, I really didn’t have any formal background, even in taking classes.
Before I started teaching, I had started my second restaurant. The first restaurant where I was chef was in Majorca, Spain. I accepted a job as the chef of a restaurant in the middle of the island where the chef had quit because he couldn’t find any women to date. He was French and the mothers had all roped off their daughters. So I got hired to be chef of this pretty nice restaurant. I didn’t know at all what I was doing, so this was another place I made mistakes.
And then we moved from there and came back to the states and I started a restaurant out in the country. And it was there that people started coming to me and saying, could they take cooking lessons? And I agreed. Teaching was just natural to me. Cooking was the only thing that I was ever good at.
LC: But you didn’t teach the way you had been taught. You taught differently.
Nathalie: When I went to the London Cordon Bleu, the first classes I took there were within the framework of how to please your man, and when we got through with the course, we asked, “Where could we get jobs with this?” And they hadn’t developed any program for us to find jobs. That was England and they were behind us in that whole social realm of stepping out from marriage.
Nathalie: When I moved to the states, I don’t know any other way to say it, women were at a different place. They were ready to get out of their marriage or at least support themselves within the marriage. They saw me earning a living by cooking and they thought, “Oh, maybe I could do that.” That was their only access to life again. Brave New World.
And then Rich’s, which was a department store here in Atlanta, asked me to open their cooking school. And so I left the restaurant and my husband and I got a divorce.
Rich’s was a wonderful facility and I brought in women from all over the United States. And really, there weren’t a lot of places where educated women could turn at that time. For years, I was the only act in town. Most women who wanted to get out of the house and liked to cook also wanted to know enough to teach cooking or write about it or something like that. And they didn’t have anywhere else to turn. That’s why we started IACP (The International Association of Culinary Professionals) for cooking schools.
A lot of those women had gotten divorced, so I was sort of a divorce way station as well. It was an important time for them and an important time for me. So I guess that’s what happened.
LC: You were teaching more than just cooking.
Nathalie: There was a time when cooking was the only avenue that many women, educated women, could think of to get into that they were the least bit interested in because their only other job option was to be a secretary. And they weren’t interested in being a secretary. It was a banal kind of thing. They were dead-end jobs because women were going to get married and have babies and they just needed to get a job somewhere that was enough to pay the rent until they found a man. Those jobs were shaped for women. These were the jobs men didn’t want to do.
Nathalie: I had to find all these areas of food where women would be interested. There were plenty of avenues for cooking that were undeveloped and untouched by women. Women had to take the lead. Women were frequently home caterers, but they could do more than that. At the time, carryout was only for pizza. I had some former students who started a carryout place that made roast chicken and sold it. The first one was in Atlanta. Women could also deliver things to people’s homes and there were all these other things they could do that would work in their schedule. They could develop a tomato sauce and sell it, whatever talent you have, you can make that be something that can be a living and be the starter on the path. One student baked a braided bread and she made it the basis for a bakery she opened.
Why being authentic makes you the best sort of teacher
LC: What do you feel makes a good teacher?
Nathalie: I think what makes people say I’m a good teacher is that I make so many mistakes myself. That I know what it’s like to be distracted. I know what it’s like to burn something. I know what it’s like to put something down on the wrong side in a pan. I’m really not being modest. I’m kind of klutzy. When I was young girl, I couldn’t see and had really thick glasses and was always dropping things. I’m not a good chopper or manually dextrous, even when I got my degree from the Cordon Bleu. Good for Julia Child that she went home and chopped 5000 onions. I didn’t even have a table in the flat when I was studying cooking.
It’s just that I was able to make a place for myself, even though I didn’t have the skills of Jacques Pepin. Not every teacher gets there because they make mistakes, you see. But I would show people, “This is how I correct my mistake.” A lot of talented people, it’s not a natural thing, they don’t have the capacity to show others how to correct a mistake. But that’s easy for me.
Nathalie: And so I’ve made all the mistakes that there are. And if I didn’t make a mistake myself, I’ve seen so many other students making the same mistake that I know what the mistake is going to be. And I just let people make them so that they can learn the mistake themselves. I’m not afraid of mistakes. I don’t care if people drop things in the kitchen. I’m oblivious to glass breaking. I won’t even turn my head if I hear glass breaking.
I would also make a mess. When I was at the London Cordon Bleu, we were often partnered up, and when we did puff pastry, I would always volunteer to do it because I wanted to master it. One girl from Scottland was always impeccable. You never saw her make a mess. We weren’t partners unit the last week and we had to make puff pastry. She said, “I haven’t done it.” What a waste. Imagine, she left with her advanced certificate not being able to make puff pastry. I always thought, “Well, I better find out the worst that can happen to me while trying this so I can make it better.” Now when I have an apprentice, one of the first things they have to learn to make is puff pastry because it gives you such a feeling of satisfaction.
I think all of those things make people feel safe. To me, being safe is one of the easiest ways to learn something. If you feel safe, you can stop and take your time and listen because you’re not so anxious, you’re not tensing up.
LC: That makes perfect sense. And you spent your career creating that ideal learning situation for other women.
Nathalie: Isn’t it interesting, food. When i was teaching at Rich’s, young people would come to me because no one else was teaching, no one else would let them apprentice and let them make mistakes and let them go where they needed to go. It wasn’t that I was so good. It’s that I was the only one.
They weren’t learning to cook at home. It was easy for me because I was there. But also, I do think it’s a spiritual thing. I do think that cooking does do something for the soul, for the whole connection between cooking and growing and feeding.
Before I got married to my favorite former husband, I was very religious at the time and I decided that I was going to pray every day. A prayer or a mantra. I decided to pray that every woman had a right to support herself, make the world a better place, and to do that by doing what she loved. Even after I got married, I kept praying that. And then he got the job in London.
I do think that every woman has a right to support herself. I think men, when they say they want to make the world a better place, they talk globally. He could be the head of UNICEF. And he would hire a secretary. That’s the world I grew up in. I wasn’t looking to be the head of UNICEF. I was just looking for a job where i could support myself. My God, we used to make so little money.
With some tenacity, I never stopped. I still have that. I still think that’s my right, that I can love what I’m doing. A lot of women are turning toward podcasts because they want to have a voice. A lot more people are doing these than used to do. So those are the people who come to me.
Why being competitive and jealous never works
LC: Speaking of students, Beth Price, our director of recipe testing, has been a student and colleague of yours for years and talks about your “pork chop theory,” but she won’t disclose to us exactly what it is. She says we need to hear it from you. Can you explain what it is? And how does it relate to women in the culinary arts?
Nathalie: I had an assistant named Shirley Corriher who outdid me. She became a star in her own right. She won a competition and figured out the chemistry of food. We were both founders of IACP and running for the board, and what were the chances that they would elect two women back then? It was a competition to be in the running for anything with anothęr woman. And that was the prevailing wisdom in my era. Shirley and I decided that we’d just support one another. And we both did get elected to the board many times.
It’s very easy to become jealous and think you missed your only chance to do this or that. Then then you become jealous of other women and drive yourself crazy. It’s not worth it. The best way is to get a positive attitude for them, just like you do for yourself. It’s a truism. A spiritual truism.
I always say it’s like frying pork chops in a pan. If you try to cook one, there’s not enough fat and it will dry out. But there’s always room for two or more, and then the fat from one feeds the others.
How teaching takes place in so many ways
LC: You went on from teaching in classrooms to teaching on TV. How did that happen?
Nathalie; Well, I was writing for a local magazine and I wrote an article about the fact that flours were different and that Southern flour had lower gluten. And so White Lily, the flour company, started visiting the cooking school because they were so shocked that anybody realized that was what was making the difference in their biscuits. Even though, of course, they were trying to advertise that, people still just weren’t getting it.
Nathalie: And I guess I wrote quite enough articles saying that Southern flour was different that they were impressed. And so they kept giving me free flour and visiting me. And then just about the time that the cooking school closed, they came to me and said that they would like to sponsor a public television show and told me to find a producer. And so once again, I didn’t know what I was doing. I spent my whole life not knowing what I was doing.
So I did call Martin Yan and say, “I was going to do a television show maybe, and how do I do that?” And he wrote me back a two- or three-page letter about how to do a television show. What a prince of a guy. And he told me that I should try to tape three shows a day. Things that I wouldn’t have known. Ultimately, I did find someone to produce and direct the show. And it took me about six or eight months. And then we got the show off the ground. It was a bunch of different series. I did 40 or 60 some for The Food Network. And then they ran all of those again on The Learning Channel.
LC: What was it like back then? Really the only other person who had done that was Julia Child. You were the second person doing anything important on television as far as a woman teaching people to cook.
Nathalie: Well, Jeff Smith was there. And Martin Yan. And Earl Peyroux. There weren’t any other women that I could…and of course I was terrified because Julia was so popular. And so good. But worse than that, I never really was home on Saturdays to watch television, so I never had even probably watched her on television, or maybe once or twice. I didn’t really watch cooking shows because I was working. So I just did it my way.
And I tried to do a whole meal so that people would have a sense of what the whole meal was like, rather than trying to do just one recipe. And I did what we called “live to tape,” which means that if there was a mistake unless it was really egregious, we didn’t edit it out. We might go back for a few pick-up shots to show a closeup of something boiling, but by and large, we didn’t edit it. And so people liked it because I made those mistakes.
LC: Also, there’s something about you and how you approach people. There’s graciousness and there’s caring and there’s empathy.
Nathalie: Well, don’t we all want that? And I think that’s a Southern thing, too. We move a little slower down here, and so that gives us more time to be empathetic. In the North, people are in such a hurry.
LC: Yeah, we are, that’s for sure. We had another Southerner on our podcast, Rebecca Lang, and she explained how you call your assistants your “chickens.” And that includes our very own Beth Price. Beth mentioned she felt like you were a mother hen protecting them.
Nathalie: The way the “chickens” came about is that there was a group of three. I kept calling them “my chickens” because they followed me everywhere. And so at the end of that class, they memorialized it by giving me a stained glass window hanging of three chickens. Those chickens fit very nicely over my sink. So it perpetuated. From then on, everyone has bn a chicken because I’m notorious for not remembering names.
LC: So many women speak so highly of you. And we understand why.
Nathalie: Well, I’m a lucky woman. They have helped me enormously. It makes me very happy. I am in touch with many women and I do remember many of them. I learn so much from them. People I would not necessarily start with as friends. But when I see what they’ve done with their lives, I learn from all of them.
Lovely to talk to you, David, and Renee, lovely to meet you, too.
LC: Likewise, it’s our pleasure. Thank you.
Nathalie: Thank you.
You can learn more about Nathalie Dupree and about cooking from Nathalie Dupree with any of her cookbooks, which number more than a dozen, including Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, Southern Biscuits, and Nathalie Dupree’s Favorite Stories & Recipes, in which she shares stories and lessons that, she writes in the introduction, will “help you to see how rich my life has been in travel, friendship, and love and leave you appreciating the good in your life.” That, to us, eloquently sums up Nathalie.