Photo: Vangelis Zavos
Back when he was in middle school in the early 1970s, his Ancient Greek teacher would often speak passionately about her experiences of traveling in Greece. When French Ambassador to Greece Christophe Chantepy took over his duties in the Greek capital, he referred to that memory.
“She would tell us about the olive trees waving like the sea beneath Delphi, the majesty of the Parthenon, the perfect marriage of land and sea. Mainly, she would tell us about Greek hospitality and the Greek spirit. My first trip, as soon as I got some money together, was to Greece. I was 20 years old, a student at university. And here I encountered everything that teacher had told us about,” he said six months ago, when he was first posted to Athens.
It was a sweet spring morning and we sipped coffee (French, of course) in one of the salons on the ground floor of the Merlin de Douai Mansion, the ambassadorial residence. It is the smallest and coziest reception area, adorned along one wall with handprinted Zuber & Cie wallpaper depicting a battle between the Greeks and the Turks in front of the Temple of Olympian Zeus during the War of Independence.
The topic of conversation in our meeting was not about art, however, but about gastronomy. “Finally! A subject less complicated than those in the news,” said the French ambassador. Our meeting was occasioned by “Gout de / Good France,” an institution established last year by celebrity chef Alain Ducasse and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, aimed at promoting the French lifestyle and local products, as well as France as a tourism destination.
Following in the footsteps of Auguste Escoffier's “Epicurian Dinners” – an initiative established in 1912 whereby the same menu would be served on the same day in many different cities around the world to as many diners as possible – “Gout de / Good France” was held on March 21 and brought together more than 1,500 chefs on all five continents and in 150 French embassies.
What impressed me most about my meeting, however, was witnessing Chantepy's love of food, a passion that dates back to his childhood in Saint-Etienne, a town some 60 kilometers southwest of Lyon in central France.
“We were four siblings and even though our father was away a lot of the time – on tour, as he was a puppet player – we always ate together. We would gather around the table and not just share food but also our impressions of what had happened that day, such as news from school. We all had something to say. That hour was sacred,” the ambassador said. “My mother was an excellent cook and, back then, with so many mouths to feed, she had to prepare huge quantities. I enjoyed being with her in the kitchen and watching her prepare meals. I gess that's when I fell in love with cuisine.”
Does that mean that he learned to appreciate good food or that he cooks himself?
“Of course I cook. In fact I have a wide range of dishes, from French and Italian to Asian cuisine. I also make pasta. I'm a fan: carbonara with gorgonzola, and also arabiata, my favorite.”
His speciality, he told me, is Blanquette de veau, beef cooked with lots of vegetables and herbs, with the broth turned into a white sauce. “Something like avgolemono without the lemono,” he said, referring to the classic Greek egg and lemon white sauce.
Returning to the subject of his first trip to Greece, almost four decades ago, I asked what dishes had impressed him then.
“My biggest discovery was vine leaves. I still love them. Together with Greek yogurt with honey, souvlaki, and avgolemono sauce. Of course I have tasted a lot more since then. I really like magiritsa [a lamb offal stew typically served on Easter Saturday] and fried lamb livers. I still haven't tried patsa [tripe stew] but I intend to, and very soon.”
What is never missing from the ambassador's fridge? “Cheese, yogurt and milk. I'm very lucky to be in a country with such good dairy, but also marmalades and vegetables, especially tomatoes when they're in season. And Kalamata olives of course. I'm very fond of them.”
I asked whether he believes that French cuisine has the place it deserves in the world.
“Of course,” he responded. “It is gastronomy that excels. Moreover, it has never remained static. It was refreshed and reinvented as nouvelle cuisine, putting the quality of the ingredients at the center. This cuisine showcases the ingredients, without covering it with anything superfluous or pretentious. It was, in fact, a food revolution.”
Before we said goodbye, I had a final question: Does he believe that promotion and recognition is harder for a chef than for a diplomat?
Even though he himself did not start out as a diplomat but as a politician (having served as director of the office of former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and with minister Segolene Royal), Chantepy did not hesitate to answer: “It might be tougher for a chef. It takes a lot of hard work to stand out and he is constantly exposed to criticism and worrying about whether the customer will be pleased. In administrative posts you often see people who are not very effective yet remain, steadfastly. Maybe because there is no customer to complain.”
* This article first appeared in Kathimerini's Sunday supplement, K magazine.