Nathalie Dupree is still hungry

She may be famous, but her quest for recognition is never-ending.
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0315_archive_nathaliedupree_cck_oneuseonlyNathalie’s world, viewed from great distance, sometimes takes on an illusionary quality, like the blue serenity of Earth to the eye of an orbiting astronaut: a warm and cozy world of roasting chickens and fresh-baked bread, strains of Mozart filtering softly from her stereo, begonias and herbs overgrowing their pots on her deck in Ansley Park.

It should be a nice world. Nathalie Dupree invented it. Through the magic of public television, she has become America’s cook, a top-selling author, den mother to Atlanta’s literati, a columnist whose unique sensual texts are one part food and one part heavy breathing, and a marketable star whose name has the potential to do for the right product what Paul Newman has done for salad dressing.

But Nathalie Dupree’s world is like the trompe de l’oeil scene painted on her front door, a trick of the eye. Her cuisine, an uptown version of down-home cooking, is a curious blend of Cordon Bleu and the bill of fare at the restaurant she once ran in a rear of an antiques store in Social Circle. Her entertaining has the class of Villeroy & Boch and the nonchalance of food stored in Ziploc bags. Her home is the venue for passionate literary discourse and the scene of an almost-constant bustle that approaches chaos. And she is anything but serene.

To Nathalie, a ringing telephone is like the bell at the firehouse. She seldom allows her answering machine to do its job. She immerses herself in production details for her new TV show. She writes two cookbooks simultaneously with incredibly vigorous self-promotion and an almost frantic search for her ultimate personal identity.

Her latest cookbooks have sold beyond her dreams, her previous cooking shows are viewed in some 250 markets and yet there seems to be a latent anxiety that all could collapse about her as easily as a cooled soufflé. She may be famous, but her quest for recognition is never-ending.

“I have had a real hard time getting anyone to take me seriously,” says Nathalie, although she has boxes full of clippings that would suggest otherwise. “I think part of it was being from Atlanta [instead of New York]. I think part of it was being a Southern woman. Even in this state, I have not been taken seriously until now.”

Nathalie fights an ongoing battle against nebulous enemies, a struggle against those diffuse arbiters of what’s in and what’s out. She has a chronicle of wrongs, a diary of doubts. First on her list is the media. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gives her only lukewarm recognition and all but ignored her last book and television series, “Nathalie Dupree’s Matters of Taste,” even though they were based on columns written for the paper. She feels unappreciated in her hometown. She also rankles at occasional slights of other cookbook writers. “He’d rather die than acknowledge that he knows me,” she says of one Southern cook who once took cooking lessons from her, but left her books out of the bibliographies of his own cookbooks.

Then there is that embodiment of snobbery and cliquishness, “the New York cooking mafia.” One food critic refused to review her book, “Matters of Taste,” because it included a recipe for Oreo cheesecake—made with store bought cookies of plebeian appeal. Nathalie is friendly with the big names—Craig Claiborne, Lee Bailey—but there’s still something intimidating about the New York publishing mind-set. “I don’t know that there’s been any animosity,” says Nathalie. “It’s just letting them know you’re here. It’s New York, L.A. and the rest of the world. You have to constantly say, ‘Hi! I’m here! Hi, I’m here!’”

It is hard, by now, for anyone not to know Nathalie Dupree is here. She has a $200,000, two-book contract with Morrow and another book in the works at Crown, a new television series about to air, and a restaurant named after her at the Richmond Marriott. She tours the country on personal appearances that command $3,500 a day. She is invariably quoted when publications outside Atlanta write articles on Southern cooking. She is mobbed at appearances from Phoenix to Philadelphia, recognized even when she is out of sight by the authoritative cadence of her voice. She receives fan letters that sometimes go on for pages. She is firmly entrenched in the realm of celebrity.

So isn’t this enough? Why can’t Nathalie find peace and tranquility in a world of good food and fame? Just what does she want?

It is possible to imagine the cycle of angst and achievement as an end in itself for Nathalie, to believe that there is to be no lofty plateau from which she will savor triumphs. Her personal history is filled with hot spots of pain and insecurity that have left their scars.

As a child, no one worried too deeply about what Nathalie wanted. Her father was a colonel in the army, and he ran a tight regiment. She wasn’t allowed the petty freedom of disliking food. She had to eat everything on her plate.

She was born in New Jersey, but by first grade, her family had settled in Virginia. The strictures of her family life made a deep imprint on her. Her parents divorced a few years after the Virginia move, so she spent virtually the rest of her life in the South. Yet military brats are wanderers, people without roots and full civilian identities. Even today, though she has become an expert in Southern food, some question her Mason-Dixon line credentials.

“We’re never perceived as belonging,” she says ruefully. “It doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived here—30, 40 years—there’s still this sort of cloud about my being Southern.”

When Nathalie first struck out on her own, she had trouble settling on who she was and what her future should be. She rebelled against her Christian Science background—earning extra money for college by volunteering for bloodletting experiments. (Christian Scientists are not supposed to visit doctors or take medication.) She floated from job to job, dabbled in politics, drifted toward an intellectual crowd, though she never finished college. “I prayed every day for an hour for a job where I could support myself, enjoy myself and make the world a better place,” she says. As lofty and open ended as that sounds, it remains her only definable goal.

She came upon cooking accidentally—perhaps, she would say, as an “accident” of fate. She had moved to London with her second husband, David Dupree (her first marriage to a fellow Democratic activist lasted only a year) and began taking housewives’ lessons at the celebrated Cordon Bleu. She wasn’t a natural—she wasn’t the top in her class—but she had a stubborn determination to learn. A couple of years later, she was granted a prestigious advanced certificate.

Nathalie and David moved back to Atlanta to escape the corporate rat race he had tangled with in London. They set up a trailer on wooded property in Social Circle, outside of Atlanta, where David opened an antiques shop. Despite her mother’s admonition that cooking is not a profession for ladies, Nathalie opened a small restaurant in the rear of the store. The menu was whatever Nathalie decided to prepare that day, much of it fresh from her garden. “Nathalie’s” became an overnight success, drawing diners from Atlanta and attracting national attention. She forged friendships with some of her regular patrons; she still doles out that same casual charm when they stop by her home for an impromptu meal.

Nathalie found an outlet for emotional expression in the foods she prepared—fresh lobster or roast quail for a gathering of friends, cold curried tomato soup for a romantic evening, a peanut butter sandwich for days when she curled up alone with a good book. Even divorce had its own taste and aroma. Though her marriage broke up, her “favorite former husband (I just hate ‘ex’—it sounds like a bad movie)” still comes by to talk and sample her cooking.

Of course, food also shaped her career. A Rich’s executive had become a regular at the Social Circle restaurant and suggested Nathalie as the perfect choice to be the teacher at the store’s new cooking school. In 1975, she had a power lunch, Southern-style, over iced tea and chicken salad at the Magnolia Room with Dudley Pope, the Rich’s vice president who was planning the school. She demanded management status and requested what sounded to her then like an outrageous salary of $18,000. Rich’s bought it.

Since then, Nathalie has had agents and publicists and other sorts of representatives, but she has always done best promoting herself. “Nathalie really wanted to carve a place out for herself when there weren’t many female chefs, outside of Julia Child,” says Elizabeth Vaeth, a close friend who handles some of her publicity. “She really had to bust her butt to get where she is, and she hasn’t backed off.”

Even Nathalie’s cooking couldn’t revitalize the downtown store, and Rich’s canceled the school in 1984. She spent a short stint bantering with a broadcast public on a WCNN radio cooking show, but that, too, ended abruptly when the station decided to change its programming. She says she was devastated, but she kept pushing forward.

She managed to get a small contract for a Southern cookbook—$10,000 from E.P. Dutton. The editors wanted her to cut out some of the ham and pork recipes, but Nathalie didn’t want to compromise her Southern tastes for New York sensibilities. She simply ignored the direction.

Stubbornness paid off. She lost that contract, but quickly got another one from Alfred A. Knopf for $35,000. Meanwhile, White Lily Foods Co. offered to sponsor a Southern cooking television show with Nathalie. She was unsure at first. Would she be criticized for trying to emulate Julia Child? Would she make it in the world of stylists and stardom? But TV was the ultimate promotional ticket. “Going on television was a declaration that I was going to be taken seriously,” she says.

On air, she wasn’t polished and suave, but she was real. She hit her audience members where they live, appealing to people who appreciate good food but don’t have hours to spend on preparation, people who want to know how and what to cook for everyday family meals or comfortable dinners with friends. She does recipes that are simple enough for children to follow, and she never covers up her mistakes. She just smiles with slight apology and tells her audience, “Of course, I’m sure you wouldn’t do that.”

She is no Martha Stewart, not a woman of glamour and elegance in entertaining, not an at-home reflection of a moneyed other half. She is her audience. She is homey and comfortable, a person who pins her hair up haphazardly and takes advice from her friends on what to wear. She believes in make-ahead, microwaves and leftovers. Her home is filled with seven sets of china, crystal, silver and cloth napkins, which appear, invariably mismatched, even on the most casual occasions.

“I’m the one that teaches people to cook in real life,” she says. “I put myself in real-life situations. What I want is for people to cook. What I want is for people to cook every day.”

On television, for example, she demonstrates quickie dishes such as lemon-herb chicken and pimento cheese spread. The food processor helps almost everything—even pie dough—but she takes care to give an alternate method for viewers who might not have a processor. She uses only ingredients that are easily found in local groceries, and she doesn’t cook with alcohol.

Loyal viewers’ snatch up her books. “New Southern Cooking” went into a 10th printing, having sold nearly 100,000 copies. “Matters of Taste” has sold about 60,000. Her enterprise is self-perpetuating, with the television shows selling books and the books supporting shows. A new book, “Nathalie Dupree Cooks for Family and Friends,” came out this fall, and the TV series debuts in February. Last spring, a die-hard fan, the manager of the Marriott in Richmond, made her the only television chef with a signature restaurant when “Nathalie Dupree’s” opened at the hotel. (It seems somehow fittingly ironic that no one in her hometown thought of capitalizing on Nathalie’s appeal.)

Yet even after proven success, Nathalie struggled with the latest production. By early fall, she faced the prospect of legal wrangles over redistribution rights for her old series; and she had yet to line up a sponsor for the new TV show. She took out a six-figure loan and produced the new television show herself while she and her representatives negotiated with potential sponsors.

Now, she is looking around for a promotional product line—a Nathalie Dupree widget, similar to Joyce Chen’s knives—to add value to an already highly marketable name.

Such activity is a necessary part of her constant recreation, of the reach to the next level of renown. Besides, there are legions of cooks hustling and dreaming of being the next Julia Child—or Nathalie Dupree. Fame is a bright light, but Nathalie plays down the fortune side.

“People must think of me as rich as Christmas. I just think of myself as a conduit right now,” she says, referring to the large staff it takes to keep her operation going. “My goal has never been to make a lot of money, although I’m good at generating it.”

Nathalie is in a rat race on a treadmill, stuck in a game that money can’t win. She says wistfully that if she had a husband, her goals would be different from those she set as a young woman. Instead of worrying about supporting herself, she could simply focus all her energy on enjoying herself and making the world a better place.

Nathalie has no set idea of what would make her happy and socially significant. She never has. But she knows that good food is not the only answer. For years, she has ever so slowly maneuvered her way toward the literary lights.

One evening, she stood in the narrow hallway of the musty Old New York Book Shop, sipping a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke that she had carried along in her purse. The rest of this off-hours party crowd drank champagne, but Nathalie no longer drinks alcohol. She stopped partly for religious reasons (drinking is prohibited by the Christian Science church) and partly for personal reasons (she says she didn’t like the way alcohol made her feel, and cutting it out helped her lose weight).

Nathalie eyed the commotion at this party, which was planned as a surprise in honor of owner Cliff Graubart, whose wife, Cynthia Stevens, has been Nathalie’s TV producer for several years. “I just have to check all this out,” Nathalie said, stopping one of the organizers in mid-stride. “I’m not in control and I don’t like it.”

It was a bit awkward for Nathalie to be standing around and not doing something—not reordering the scene and arranging the details. Her military childhood made her a nut for details, and her career made her a professional hostess. Besides, the guest list for this gathering could have been lifted directly from Nathalie’s own address files.

A voracious reader, Nathalie long ago became a regular customer of the Old New York Book Shop, where she befriended owner Graubart and earned invites to the autographing parties held there. When Graubart grew weary of hosting the ever-expanding parties, Nathalie graciously took over.

Now she calls some of Atlanta’s most notable writers her close friends—including authors Anne Rivers Siddons and Pat Conroy. Others jokingly refer to her as the “den mother” of the writing community. Her parties are certainly classier than Graubart’s. He served cheap champagne in plastic tumblers; Nathalie never entertains without serving a real meal.

Her home became a salon in the old fashioned sense—both for writers and big-name chefs. Before she moved up to her bungalow-style house, she cooked in a condominium kitchen the size of a closet. Then, as now, recipes all come from cookbooks in progress and the guests are her tasters.

But even beyond the draw of good food, Nathalie has become a leader of the literati. When Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” was banned in some countries and his life threatened, it was not a literary legend in Atlanta who rallied support for him. It was cookbook writer Nathalie Dupree. She gathered friends together and prodded them to plan an event at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library. When Muslims showed up and chanted in protest, some of her colleagues were intimidated or angered. Nathalie insisted that the protesters be given time to speak, handling them with the aplomb she might exhibit with difficult dinner guests.

Nathalie knows how to bring people together—usually more like-minded ones, of course. She connects would-be cookbook writers with editors, would-be television chefs with producers. She knows everyone who’s anyone in the cooking world, and she encourages even the big-name foodies to negotiate more forcefully for money and publicity.

“If I had to use one word to describe Nathalie, it would be influential,” says one friend. “She loves to cook and she loves to entertain, but more than anything she loves to be influential.”

Nathalie can be difficult, her friends say, by which they mean she can be stubborn and strong-willed. She does her books and shows and appearances exactly her way. Some call her hard to work with. But she has an abiding generosity that weaves people into a tapestry of loyalty and affection. She keeps a high chair and playpen in her home for the toddlers of three friends. She was instrumental in helping a former roommate adopt a baby—even going so far as to lend her a credit card for a cross-country trip.

Even in the years that Nathalie has been a woman trying to make it alone, she has been surrounded by legions of friends. This is her recreated family. She has a need to be needed, a need to weave those close to her into a cocoon of comfort—to be their support and, at the same time, supported. She took in two teenage foster daughters and has recently talked of adopting an AIDS baby.

Her nurturing fits nicely into both the practical and emotional aspects of cooking. Her friends taste-test her recipes, her “salon” gatherings set her style of entertaining. Her life is neatly integrated.

But professionally, she has not found that level of symbiosis. “I like the television, but I didn’t ever see myself as a television star,” she says in a way that hints that she may still feel a bit like an impostor in front of the cameras.

For about 18 months, she found her ideal arena in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution column that used food to reflect upon life and friendship and romance. She didn’t even have to include a recipe at the end. “The stories are the way I see life,” she says. “The show is how I cook. Sometimes they’re the same, or sometimes not. [The columns] are really who I am and what I care for.”

Her writing was at times painfully personal. To some, it was overwrought; that was her brand of dramatic sincerity: “He taught her so much that the small, hard part of her soul became plump and tender, like a raisin soaked in wine. Without a touch or a word of love, they had each given the other a new world. She never made the soup again without thinking of him.”

“People had strong reactions to it, but they read it,” says her friend Dudley Clendinen, the paper’s former features editor, now an assistant managing editor at the Baltimore Sun, who lauds the column as a symbol of Nathalie’s freshness and originality. “If it were formulaic, I think it would have been more palatable.” Shortly after Clendinen left, and the era of former editor Bill Kovach ended, Nathalie’s column was canceled.

Nathalie has dreams of writing a romantic novel—it would fit her style, and her bountiful emotion. And perhaps then someone would host an autographing party for her. But she hasn’t yet figured out how to do that and maintain that important part of her goal: to support herself.

Meanwhile, she keeps up with her unique brand of writing. She now writes a column for the Los Angeles Times syndicate.

Writers are often driven forward by the sense that no finished work is really good enough—using mental self-flagellation as a motivating tool. Nathalie has refined this to an art. “She loves to work,” says TV chef and friend Martin Yan. “She can’t slow down. She can’t calm down.” To stay on top in the big leagues calls for total immersion.

So as an assistant chops vegetables in her kitchen and a bookkeeper tries to straighten out her finances and a proofreader goes over the galleys of her latest book, she sits amid a clutter of papers in her living room, her professional war room. There she does battle with the powers that be—New York publishers who don’t “get it” about her style, media people who don’t understand her appeal. And her own private demons that push her toward greater heights.

This article originally appeared in our December 1991 issue under the headline, “Nathalie’s World.”

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