As the first woman since Julia Child to film more than 100 cooking shows for public television, Nathalie Dupree has helped bring southern cooking to the nation's attention. Recognizing the contributions of European and African cooks, she emphasizes traditional ingredients and foodways that can traced back through the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Civil War (1861-65). Through her teaching, writing, and filming in Georgia, Dupree has helped citizens of the state to preserve and expand their culinary heritage, and her influence has contributed, in particular, to Atlanta's emergence as a "food town."
Nathalie Dupree was born to Evelyn Cook and Walter G. Meyer on December 23, 1939, in New Jersey, where her father, a career army officer, was stationed. Her parents later divorced, and she grew up in Virginia, Texas, and other places across the South with her mother and two siblings. In difficult times food provided comfort and security as well as a focus for social events. In college she was given the opportunity to cook for her dormitory through one summer; although Dupree felt that she had found her calling as a chef, her mother persuaded her that professional cooking was no career for a lady.
After several years spent in unfulfilling office work, she moved to London, England, in the late 1960s with her first husband, David Dupree, and attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school there, intending to take one class. Instead she stayed for a year and earned an advanced certificate. "After that," she says, "I decided it didn't matter about being a lady."
Dupree spent the summer after her graduation from cooking school running a restaurant in Majorca, Spain. In the early 1970s the Duprees returned to David's hometown, Social Circle, Georgia, in Walton County to open Nathalie's, a restaurant that emphasized fresh regional ingredients and California-style grilling and baking. Dupree grew her own herbs for the restaurant, which drew customers from as far away as Atlanta, a good hour's drive.
In 1975 Dupree founded a cooking school at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta, becoming its director and first gourmet chef-in-residence. During almost ten years of operation, the school attracted guests like Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Paul Prudhomme, and Paula Wolfert and enrolled more than 10,000 students in classes and apprenticeship programs. Distinguished graduates of the program include the food writer Shirley Corriher and Atlanta chef Karen Hilliard. In 1984 Dupree was elected president of the International Association of Cooking Schools, now the International Association of Culinary Professionals, with an agenda to set standards for the accreditation of cooking schools across the country.
In 1986 White Lily Flour, a firm based in Knoxville, Tennessee, asked Dupree to do a cooking show. The company produces a soft wheat flour that many southern cooks consider a necessity for good biscuits. Filmed first in Atlanta and then in Social Circle, New Southern Cooking with Nathalie Dupree was the first of her nine television series. Eventually Dupree filmed more than 300 half-hour episodes that aired on PBS, the Learning Channel, and FoodTV.
Dupree says that watching Graham Kerr, a prominent television chef, encouraged her to host a show of her own. She sees her television persona as the "reality cook," more interested in tasty, affordable food than in an elegant presentation of impossible ingredients. Spills, misplaced dishes, and burning potholders are all captured on tape, with Dupree cheerfully reassuring her viewers that the recipe will turn out perfectly in their own kitchens. "People who watch me aren't afraid to try things," she says. "I've done every conceivable dumb thing there is to do."
Dupree has written nine cookbooks, each requiring years of effort and thousands of dollars from her book advances to cover a staff of up to thirty people and supplies—"$20,000 for groceries is nothing." The hundreds of recipes in each book are tested at least three times by Dupree's staff and by volunteer amateur cooks. She makes a point of crediting the sources that she and her staff use, both with a formal bibliography at the back of each book and in the names given to the recipes. Dupree explains, "A recipe is always named for the person who gave it to you, no matter how long you've been making it, because the whole extended family knows she made it before you did." More than 300,000 copies of cookbooks by Dupree are in circulation. Two of her books— Nathalie Dupree's Southern Memories and Comfortable Entertaining —have won awards from the James Beard Foundation.
Recipes by Dupree adapt traditional southern foods to contemporary palates, reducing fat and creating new dishes like Turnip Green Pasta and Grits with Rosemary and Grapes. Her philosophy of fitness relies on three good meals a day, no snacking, and regular exercise.
In 2004 Dupree won the Jack Daniel's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance. She and her third husband, Jack Bass, maintain homes in Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta.