How to eat like a (French) lady

Q&A with Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat Cookbook

Mireille Guiliano, New York Times best-selling author and former CEO of Clicquot Inc., talks with Maclean’s about her new book, the French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook, and dishes on Julia, Oprah, and her magic breakfast recipe that she swears will change your life.

Q: The first recipe in your new cookbook is something you call Magical Breakfast Cream. Do you really believe that it will transform people?

A: Yes, yes I do. I’m surprised that TV shows haven’t picked up on it—maybe they don’t have time to read the book—because this is so important, especially now because we’re approaching bathing suit season and everyone wants to lose a quick five pounds. I’ve had so many converts—the first was my editor. He’s not overweight but he’s a tall guy, very “New York” in fashion and conscience. One day I came to see him and he looked different. He said, “I couldn’t wear this suit for the last ten years and I hate the gyms and thanks to you I’ve just melted away five pounds in no time and I feel so great.” And I said, “Was it the MBC?” And it was of course. It’s what I call a complete breakfast because it has carbs, fat and protein. So many people don’t eat carbs in New York. But our bodies need carbs.

Q: People are terrified of bread here too, and carbs in general. Do you eat bread everyday?

A: Everyday, yes.

Q: So is it just a matter of, and your cookbook really drives this home, moderation and balance?

A: Yes, because bread, especially now with all these wonderful breads available to us, they’re good for you! They have fibres. But you just don’t eat a loaf of it. But a piece, yes. I see people looking at me during breakfast, lunch and dinner [eating bread] but they won’t have any. It’s like guilt or something. But I eat my bread. It’s like a small glass of wine—it’s an element of the meal. And it’s important to wipe your sauce.

Q: Sam Sifton recently wrote in the New York Times magazine that one of life’s great pleasures is “swiping bread through a small puddle of melted chicken fat and salad dressing.” So you’re telling me French women mop their plates with bread?

A: Yes they do. I don’t know him but I when I read that column I thought, I need to write to him, which is something I don’t normally do. What he’s doing is basically the life I had: I was not called a restaurant critic, but my work in Champagne [for Clicquot, Inc.] meant that I would have been eating in restaurants all the time. When I got that job I thought to myself, “Now Mireille you have two choices: you continue the way you ate after your Dr. Miracle thing in the first book [When Guiliano’s family doctor got her eating back on track after her being side-tracked by American foods] and apply what my mother taught me and how I grew up eating, or you eat in restaurants and get fat.” And I said to myself, “Been there, done that,” and I’m never going to do it again. It’s the little things you learn, and he’s missing a few tricks and I want to help him. It’s easy and dangerous when you have food the way he does.

Q: You’ve included recipes before in your books but this is your first official cookbook.

A: Well the first book [French Women Don’t Get Fat] had 50 recipes and people who really understood the lifestyle and that it was not a diet, they love them because they were fast, easy, and most of the time very delicious. So they wrote to me and said we want more recipes. I always say I’m not a chef or a professional. I’m like you: I’m a home cook. So these recipes I picked them on purpose because I have more elaborate recipes that mostly come from my family, my grandma. But nobody cooks like that today and also nobody has the time. These are the recipes I cook because until very recently I worked very long hours. I would work until eight at night and I’d be tired and hungry and how can you make dinner in twenty minutes? But you can!

Q: Why do you think so many of us are not cooking?

Between the first and third books, what I learned was that there’s a lack of connection with food. I have friends who watch these [food] TV shows and they don’t cook! It’s more like entertainment and that’s fine but I think you need to go to the market and pick and learn and experiment, and then develop your own things and work with them. I get so many emails where I see that people don’t have the confidence, probably being intimidated by all these fancy chefs or books where you need 20 ingredients, three hours to make a dish, five pieces of equipment. You don’t need all these machines. And if you have kids and a spouse, then engage them. I have 31 definitions of cooking at the end of this book. But since then I’ve added another 60!

Q: One of those definitions is, Cooking is transportive. Proust had his madeleines: Is there a food item that brings it all back for you?

A: Too many. Actually, I tell one anecdote in this book with the recipe for Madeleines au Chocolat [where Giuliano recounts being terrified of a mouse that she and a friend encounter in the kitchen where freshly baked madeleines await them.] I can relive that scene and I see myself and my little friend on that kitchen table being paralyzed by that mouse and those beautiful chocolate madeleines getting cold and me being so angry and mad!

But I have a lot of Proust food, like eating my first oysters in a shack in Brittany; Like when I eat a warm slice of brioche in the morning that I baked reminds me of my childhood; A perfectly ripe peach or apricot right off the tree is a magic moment; And seeing people, especially in Provence, we have so many friends from all over the world who have come to visit us there and say they will never eat a strawberry, or a peach or a tomato and not think about the one I had there because it was like, wow.

Q: Transportive?

A: Yes. We don’t even realize what food can do, how it can help and how it can make you happy. It can change you.

Q: How do you maintain your optimism despite the fact that obesity is on the rise nearly everywhere?

A: Believe it not every day I still get tons of emails regarding [French Women Don’t Get Fat]. What’s saddened me is that so many women, and the emails have really made me aware of this, have such a negative relationship with food. Every time I lecture I have people who come at the end, who didn’t want to say anything in public and they say I’ve changed their life. Last night, a nice man in his late 40s said “I bought your first book when it first came out and I lost close to 50 pounds.”

Q: Wow.

A: He never gained it back. So those stories keep me optimistic. Now I’m on a mission. I say, I do my French Revolution but it’s a non-violent one! It’s just eat well.

Q: Are you familiar with what Jamie Oliver is doing and his Food Revolution? Do you see yourself as part of that movement?

A: Actually someone just sent me an email that said a writer in England who’s doing a piece on the cookbook has referred to me as the French Jamie Oliver. He’s doing great things. I’ve had many offers to do cooking shows and all that but it’s not for me. Young people should do it. But I can see how you can have a bigger impact than doing it like me; the small way, one by one. But now I have my website and hopefully a movie will be done.

Q: I read about that on IMDb. Can you tell us anything more?

A: I had many offers before but people always wanted to do the movie on me and I kept saying, “You don’t understand, it’s not a movie about me!” I don’t care about me. Nobody cares about me. It’s about the message of the book and if somebody could get that message and then Hillary Swank and Molly Smith—she’s the daughter of the FedEx guy—together they have a production company.

Q: So they presented a screenplay to you?

A: Oh yes, I’m actually going there in two weeks to see where we stand but my requirement was that look, I don’t want to be involved. I mean I don’t know anything about movies except that I love them. But all I know is that there are too many violent, bloody, horrible movies. This has to be about the message and the message has to be relayed in a romantic comedy. And they got it. And if the screenplay is adapted the way it is now, it will be good.

Q: Did you draw inspiration from other cookbooks or food writers when you were working on the French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook?

A: No.

Q: Not even M.F.K. Fisher or Julia Child?

A: I knew Julia Child personally. I met her when I was very young and in New York through a French woman who ran a cooking school and was a friend of hers. This woman told me that if I didn’t mind waking up early, I could go to the studio at five or six in the morning to watch her. For me it was like watching a free movie! And then I met her and she loved Champagne and we had many years together. Actually we hosted the last dinner in Boston before she moved to California and it was a very interesting. I wrote about it when the film Julie and Julia came out. We went to No9 in Boston where Barbara Lynch is the chef. It was all women: women chefs, women sommelier, women P.R, women press. We had fifty women and it was the week after September 11. I thought, oh my God, that dinner for Julia will be canceled, and then I get this call from Julia and she said, [here, Mireille does her best Julia Child impression] “So are you coming?” And I said I don’t know and she said, “You must, you must! We need it after all this bad news!” I said, okay, okay, I’ll come.

So I went and it was magical. She was 80, and stayed from eight to one in the morning. We had six different champagnes, 14 courses, she sat next to me and I couldn’t believe the appetite— though they were all small portions—but her joie de vivre she had! And she said, “It’s all you people that did it to me! I got the joie de vivre in Paris!”

So when I reread her book, she’s there.

Q: I noticed in your cookbook that you only include arugula in one recipe. Do you detest it, like Child famously did?

A: Oh I love it. But I also know what my readers like. I was ambiguous about leeks too because I have readers that don’t like them but then on the other hand, zillions love leeks so I said it’s too bad, I’m going to make more than one recipe with leeks because they’re so good for you. For me I discovered arugula in Italy—you know in my next life I will be Italian—so I love to make it with pasta. It’s like ramps, so good. So I could do a whole book on arugula.

Q: Is there a food you don’t like?

A: The only thing I would say is tripe. I would eat it if I were at somebody’s home because a French person doesn’t say, ‘Oh I don’t eat that’—it’s just not proper. And I have ordered it in a restaurant if a chef prepared it. It’s just never worked for me. But otherwise I eat everything.

Q: Is it true that you invited Oprah to come and stay with you after she confessed that she needed a little help?

A: Yes, and she needs big help. On the show we talked about the croissant and how fast she ate it and I said you don’t savor everything. You eat like a robot. And then off-screen in the greenroom she said to me that her other problem is that she can’t walk by a refrigerator without emptying it. And I said, “well, you know I’ve transformed friends by having them stay with me for a week. You can come. Provence is a great place.” She said, “I might take you up on that.” Maybe next year when she starts to work part time and starts to travel. I’ve had a few cases where people just didn’t believe it until they came and when they see the way I live, the way I cook and the way I eat, I give them the basics to really apply to their lives, that you don’t quite get in a book. You have to live it.

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