This award-winning television show host and cookbook author popularized Southern fare — but her holidays have rarely been traditional.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Eamon Queeney
Legendary Southern chef Nathalie Dupree has traveled the globe, published 14 cookbooks and received multiple James Beard and lifetime achievement awards. She’s run restaurants and a cooking school and hosted hundreds of nationally aired cooking shows. To many, she’s known as the Julia Child of the South, credited for putting the region’s cuisine on the national food map and being one of the first to pay homage to other cultures’ influence on its foodways.
Dupree grew up in New Jersey, Virginia and around the South. As an adult, she moved to London with her second husband — or as she likes to say, “favorite former husband” — David Dupree. Wanting something to do, she enrolled in a class at the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. That single lesson turned into enrolling full-time and graduating with honors.
Her expertise allowed her to run a restaurant in Spain. Then they moved back to Social Circle, Georgia, David’s hometown, where she opened the restaurant Nathalie’s, then her own cooking school. From there, her career took off: She published best-selling cookbooks including New Southern Cooking and Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, which was co-written with Cynthia Grauhart. This book — a hefty six-plus pounds with more than 600 recipes inside — garnered a James Beard award.
Her first cooking show, New Southern Cooking, aired for eight seasons, and she’s hosted more than 100 cooking shows on public television.
Dupree turns 83 this month and will spend Christmas with her husband, retired journalist and professor Jack Bass, to whom she’s been married for nearly 30 years.
The two moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to Raleigh in 2020, just before the pandemic, to be closer to children and grandchildren.
In their cozy home, Dupree’s James Beard awards hang on a folk art statue she found in the North Georgia mountains years ago. It’s a woman carved from a single block of wood.
“I loved her at first sight, so proud and determined,” she says. Their apartment is full of reminders of a life filled with culinary adventures: table linens from Provence, framed menus from Paris, a giant mortar and pestle from Mexico. Art from all over the globe fills the walls, alongside accolades from her successful career. Some of Dupree’s favorite culinary adventures have taken place over the holidays.
One December, she found herself in a predicament in Marbella, Spain. While exploring the area with a few girlfriends, they were stopped by the Guardia Civil. The group had been taking turns driving and changed drivers after passing the border checkpoint, which caught the guards’ attention. “They came out of the early morning mist and surrounded the car, terrifying us,” says Dupree.
“They half-heartedly accused us of smuggling drugs because we stopped the car so near the border. They left and we drove to the nearest town.” Disaster averted, the group followed locals into a bakery as the sun came up, where they enjoyed warm bread for breakfast.
Then, Dupree collected local Seville oranges from a roadside stand to practice for a marmalade-making exam she had coming up at Le Cordon Bleu.
In the 1960s, when Dupree was living in London, she and David took a cruise to Morocco over Christmas. The trip happened while she was studying for her exams at Le Cordon Bleu, so she had her schoolwork with her. “I had this huge cookbook and the maître d’ from the cruise ship asked if he could borrow it,” laughs Dupree. “The chef had never seen a foreign cookbook.”
In the late 1980s while filming her first TV series, New Southern Cooking, she hosted culinary legends Edna Lewis, Paul Prudhomme and Craig Claiborne for the Christmas episode. “It was a terrific group of people. It was an important show,” Dupree says. “There weren’t many videos of Lewis or Clairborne at the time. We made stuffing, a turkey, greens and some other traditional holiday dishes.
Another favorite holiday memory of Dupree’s was in the 1990s.
“It was a time when there were many chateaus on the market,” she recalls. “I believe the French tax system had changed, so people were selling their big properties, and then others were buying these chateaus as a group.” Conveniently, some friends of hers had purchased a chateau in France’s Loire Valley, so they hosted a big group gathered for the holiday.
Dupree ventured out to the nearest market to find the ingredients to make a big batch of bouillabaisse, the decadent French stew. “The markets in France are wonderful, there’s so much variety,” she remembers. “It was just this spontaneous meal and the herbs and fish at the market were so fresh.”
Some holiday memories aren’t as exciting and worldly. Growing up, she says, “we never instituted a big Christmas event. We just didn’t make a big deal of it.”
This was in part because a dark story had haunted her family for years before she was born: Dupree’s grandfather was tragically killed in front of her mother just before Christmas, when her mother was a young girl. As a result, her mother struggled with long-term depression, particularly around the holidays. “It was just more of a religious holiday, not a flashy one,” she says. “We got a tree and decorated it. We went to church, just as we did on Thanksgiving.”
But as Dupree entered adulthood, she chose to set a different tone for her own holidays. “I always just liked having people over, no matter the circumstances,” she says. “Even as a small child, I’d invite people over for parties and tea and I still do. I was gregarious. I still like to entertain.” Over two decades living in Charleston, she hosted tons of dinner parties and holiday meals.
Her menus always include delicacies like her soft, decadent Chocolate Roulade dusted with powdered sugar, savory roasts or quail and her famous vegetable dishes. “I think holidays are the time for a lot of vegetables,” says Dupree.
“You can feed the vegans and vegetarians, you can fill people up but not so much where they feel so full.” With all the fabulous meals and culinary success, if you ask Dupree what she considers her career highlight, the answer is one you might not expect: it’s teaching someone to make a pie crust. “Making a pie crust is one thing. Teaching how is another,” she says. “Having people turn out pie crusts — to make them successfully and see those aha moments — is a real thrill.”
Ever warm, witty, honest and honest, Dupree is looking forward to a cozy and, dare we say, traditional Christmas this year. She’ll pull her French linens out and set the table for herself and Jack, and whoever else might mosey in. She’ll use her long-standing entertaining tricks, making things ahead of time and keeping it simple.
“The holidays shouldn’t be too hard on the host; they should be enjoyable,” she says. And she’ll count her blessings for her life of moveable feasts, friends and family and career successes. “I never planned any of these things, my life just happened,” she says. “It’s all so lovely.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.