A Q&A With Mireille

Mireille answers questions about French Women For All Seasons….

Americans loved learning to stay slim by eating for pleasure in your international bestseller, French Women Don’t Get Fat. What is French Women For All Seasons about?

MG: French Women for All Seasons is about the art of living well. And, of course, it is filled with stories and tips from my personal experience. A secret to enjoying life and discovering pleasure is cultivating a life of ongoing experimentation, exploration, enjoyment, and self-discovery. Whether it is living through a season or life, my principle is the same: embrace the seasons and seasonality and make savoring life a more intense experience. The challenge for people is their lifestyle. Many people go through life on autopilot, paying little attention to their senses. They have a lifestyle of inertia and want a quick fix. Readers of my first book understood that changing a lifestyle is not measured week to week, but year to year. It requires effort and attention, yes, but the benefit is a more sensuous life, and a more fulfilling one. You learn to know yourself, develop a positive emotional outlook, and enjoy more of every aspect of life.

French Women Don’t Get Fat enabled millions of readers to enjoy a healthier relationship with food. My aim with French Women for All Seasons is to enable readers to enjoy a healthier relationship with life!

You offer many tips for entertaining à la Française. What is best to remember when seeking to create welcoming and memorable occasions?

MG: I always start with a glass of Champagne. It makes things festive; it behaves almost like a magic potent. So, start with some sort of mood enhancer. Music can set a tone. That said, entertaining is about giving to people and sharing with them. Conversation makes entertaining memorable. So, work at stimulating conversation through questions or good pairings of guests. For the meal, you don’t have to exhaust yourself making multiple courses. In France, entertaining is more casual; it’s really all about conviviality, about relaxing, sharing and laughing together. My friends invite me for dinner and brush off my protests that they have to work in the morning. They are very clear that they are not planning a five-course meal, and they also are not going to buy a bag of potato chips and order a pizza, either. They can prepare one dish that can be served with a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and some cheese. It’s not too difficult for them, and it is fun because really, entertaining is foremost about getting together. It doesn’t have to be complicated. I think if Americans can learn to be comfortable with being more spur of the moment; they will enjoy it more.

You embrace a glass or two of wine with meals as a healthy and pleasurable part of life. A lot of people, women in particular, enjoy wine but are often intimated by it…about all the rituals surrounding it and about what to order, whether in a restaurant or wine store. What do you advise them?

MG: Relax and gain more experience. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You drink the wrong wine with your fish? Really. People are most concerned about looking foolish or about not appearing sophisticated and authoritative. They are not embarrassed about asking basic computer questions, cooking questions, or getting help programming their cell phone, so why is ordering and drinking wine different? Ask the person taking your wine order for her advice and tell them or give a hint of the price range, perhaps by pointing to a wine in your price range and asking what they think about that one. One of the longest chapters in French Women for All Seasons is a comprehensive wine primer with stories and commonsense advice that women in particular have been seeking from me for years. Bottom line: you can learn enough to enjoy wine and have a basic confidence about it in just a few hours. Most of the lessons are in the glass. Pull a few corks and do a little reading and enjoy wine as food. And remember, a glass of wine is no more fattening than a slice of bread or a piece of fruit.

Your first book introduced many of us to the wonders of leeks. Which are among your favorites recipes in French Women for All Seasons?

MG: Of course I like very much all the recipes I included in the book, and I prepare most of them often. Without pinpointing one or two, I would say the ones with my favorite ingredients—leeks, oysters, tomatoes, yogurt, mushrooms, and chocolate—are the ones I prefer and would eat any day. I think people will be surprised and pleased by how many pasta recipes there are. Not so surprising are the number of recipes for soup, a great and it appears to me under-utilized meal component.

How did you develop these recipes?

MG: I am constantly thinking about dishes. I read recipes like musicians read sheet music or a score, and I can almost taste what I read. Many of the recipes come from my childhood, from family, my mother and my friends and relatives whom I see when I am in Paris and Provence. I watch and listen and make their dishes my own. Because I eat out a great deal for business, I get many ideas from restaurants. I say to myself, oh, I would try this without these other ingredients. I reinterpret and add variations. Often, I create things that don’t work so well. However, those I like, I develop into a recipe. Many reflect the European way of cooking with relatively less sugar. With my love for honey, I look to replace sugar with honey when I can. I also like to play with herbs. And shallots are my magic ingredient for savory dishes.

I have many readers in their 20s and 30s who grew up eating fast foods. I want to encourage their interest, so I primarily present my less-elaborate recipes. I think people love them because they are quick and delicious, and they were surprised that they could have both in a meal made in 30 minutes (that time slot seems to be becoming a reference for people in this complex, time-challenged century…but I have always believed in pure and simple cooking at home. For the alternatives, I generally go to restaurants.)

With all your restaurant meals, menu testing, and entertaining, how do you avoid over-eating and getting fat?

MG: I have a number of tricks that I write about in both books. One I describe in French Women for All Seasons I call the “50 Percent Solution.” It’s a mental approach to appreciating how much you really want or really need. Would you be satisfied with just half, for instance, of a big dessert or a main course? Chances are you will be satisfied with less than a huge portion. We gain our greatest pleasure and appreciation for what we eat (and drink) in the first few tastes, and thereafter many of us just switch into autopilot. You can keep the pleasure and save a lot of fat simply by knowing and enjoying what you are putting into your body. By eating fresh food in season, which is more satisfying than out-of-season, shipped and stored produce, you generally satisfy yourself fully with smaller portions. I practice the “50 Percent Solution” in lots of ways, sometimes as a protection—you know, if you don’t have a full bottle of wine uncorked on the table, you can’t drink it. Well, for a glass or two of wine with dinner (no more), my husband and I open a bottle and immediately pour off 50 percent into a half bottle, cork it, and set it aside for another night. Voilà. Then we enjoy our glass or two, which is all we wanted or is good for us in the first place.

Along with your seasonal recipes, you provide menus for a week’s worth of meals for fall, winter, spring, and summer. For you, what are the key ingredients to planning a good menu?

MG: Start simply. Buy fresh vegetables and food—meat or fish—and use good olive oil and herbs. You’d be surprised, for example, how bland some olive oils are. I think freshness and balance are essential. Don’t make things that are too complicated and always try to have with each meal some carbs, protein, and fat. Most diets tell you to cut things out, but I know that to really find pleasure in food and to find your equilibrium, you need a little bit of everything. That is true of life, too; you need to work, you need to experience love, have time for relaxation, exercise, fun, visiting friends—a little bit of each. It’s like a recipe that says; add a pinch of this, a pinch of that…at the end of the day, the proportions of your food and your lifestyle depend on you. You’re unique, and I’m unique. I’m giving templates to play with.

In addition to chocolate, what must no home be without?

MG: Good ingredients. A good vinegar is essential, so you can always make a tasty salad and an enjoyable dish. I have included recipes for warm dishes in my book like the Leeks with Mozzarella and Basil that call for both olive oil and vinegar, not mixed as a dressing, but poured on as the final touch of preparation. With your vinegar and olive oil, always have cans of tomatoes or tomato sauce—these are usually well made and helpful to have on hand in winter time—a selection of herbs, and stock items that you can use if you have guests and you have nothing else, like pasta. You should have anchovies, mustards, of course honey is indispensable, and cornichons (small gherkins), because they’re a great way to curb cravings. I would add prunes because they’re good for you—you need foods with fiber—and raisins, things that will last in your pantry. Again, you don’t need to stock 50 million ingredients. It depends on what you like. And, by the way, a home can and should be without chocolate if it is one of your offenders, one of the foods you cannot control eating. If you can’t have a box or bar of chocolate in the house without eating it in the same day, don’t stock it, buy it when you knowingly plan to serve and enjoy it.

French women are known for their fashion sense. What are the must-haves in a French woman’s wardrobe?

MG: The little black dress is number one. It really is an essential and amazing piece of clothing, because you can accessorize to make it perfect for various events–some bold, some conservative. In the office, you can wear a blazer or jacket over it, then easily slip the jacket off for evening cocktails. You can dress it with a beautiful scarf, of course, so I would say the little black dress is first, then scarves, a pearl necklace, a nice classic suit—whether it’s a skirt and jacket or pants and jacket—a nice blouse, and a cashmere sweater. To me, those are the essentials, foundation tools upon which to build your distinctive identity with a little of this or that.

How is a typical day in your life organized?

MG: Each morning, I generally drink a glass of water and go for a walk or do some kind of stretch at home before breakfast. I never skip breakfast. A good breakfast is essential for me; I can’t function without it. Then, a quick glance at the papers and emails, especially when I travel. I usually have very busy and complex working days. I try to create moments, a few minutes here and there to relax and breathe and refocus my energy. Many evenings, I need to go out for my job, for business meetings, entertaining people, or something in conjunction with my appearances and lectures. I like to go home, do some yoga, and shower to renew myself before going out. If I am at home, I do a little work, read, and spend time with my husband and friends.

You say you don’t do gyms, and suggest a “no heroics, please” approach to exercise. Please describe the exercise plan that works so well for you.

MG: I walk everywhere. For a French person, a half-hour walk is nothing. When I first moved to the States, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a friend and then enjoyed the hour walk home in Manhattan. She was stunned. To me, walking is more than a type of exercise, it gives me a Zen moment—planning my day, thinking about work or relations…if I am in the country, it gives me time out in nature. Stairs are also good. I love swimming and biking, and stretching. I vary my stretching exercises day to day; I don’t like routine. The idea of going to a gym is very unappealing to me, but I can respect that in many cities, it is difficult to walk, it is too hot or too cold. The most important thing is to move your butt. In Europe and America, we also increasingly have sedentary lives, so it’s really essential to get your body going to help your circulation and breathing. Do what works for you, but never use movement or going to the gym as an excuse to eat; it’s extremist.

…extremist eating and extremist exercising?

MG: Yes, eating a lot and then thinking you can burn it off by exercising for three hours is so anti-French. We eat to fuel our bodies, not so we can exercise it off. We all go off the path and indulge, but the point is to find our equilibrium. In our high-speed world, we fall into the trap of feeling we must rush. It is a dangerous trap that compels us to accept stress, leading to unhappiness. We gulp down food without tasting it. Using our senses is really crucial. If you eat with your senses, you gain clues about living. Be aware when you shop in the market. Smell the aroma of your food in a restaurant; look at the dishes, appreciate them and prepare your taste buds for a delicious meal. It is a natural way to slow down, to stop from speeding to the next red light in your life, and enjoy yourself more.

Does Champagne make you slim?

MG: Wouldn’t that be wonderful. It seems everyone would like a silver bullet; the magic potion that will melt away pounds. Champagne is a kind wine made from mostly red grapes and is relatively low in histamines and offers some health benefits, but it certainly contains calories, although less than white or red wine. What is distinctive about Champagne is that it is sipped in moderation. It is full-flavored, with bubbly charm and is almost a state of mind. A glass or two — say, 3 ounces, 5 ounces, or even 8 ounces total — makes for a full and pleasurable experience. I don’t run into people guzzling Champagne like beer or soda. And I don’t run into people sipping Champagne unaccompanied by some food, such as hors d’oeuvres or a meal.

So, the direct answer to your question is that while Champagne doesn’t make me slim, it gives me pleasure and perhaps keeps me away from some high calorie, liquid overindulgences that would make me fat.

You’re warning of pastry, chocolate and ice cream. Don’t you have a ravenous appetite, sometimes?

MG: I love pastry, chocolate and ice cream and eat them all the time. How much is enough, though? I believe the first two or three bites provide the most satisfaction. So, again, I indulge but in moderation, and without thinking I exercise a natural portion control. That is one of the key messages in my book. I certainly would not eat four or five scoops of ice cream; one or two scoops are a fully satisfying experience for me — but not every day or even every week. I guess I have trained myself as a French woman to think in smaller sizes. But if I overindulge now and again, I balance that with more modest intakes over perhaps the next few days.

And yes, I sometimes do have a ravenous appetite. When I do, I drink a big glass of water, which reduces the void somewhat, then wait a while and eat something. Most of the time we are thirsty rather than hungry.

Don’t you ever weigh yourself on the scales?

MG: Well, the doctor puts me on the scale once a year when I get a complete physical. Probably two or three times during the year — usually after I have been traveling for a couple of weeks and eating either irregularly or indulgently — I put myself on the scale to see how far I have strayed from my equilibrium and if I need to do anything. I rarely vary by more than a kilo or so in either direction, and I am surprised sometimes to see it is minus and not plus. Since my twenties, I have kept basically the same weight. All my old clothes still fit.

Did you invent the zipper-syndrome?

MG: I am sure I did not invent it. After all, it is simply common sense: if your regular clothes feel tighter than usual, you have put on a little weight. If you clothes no longer fit, you have put on a lot a weight. These are wake-up calls. And, of course, if you are swimming in your clothes, that could be welcome news. No one taught me this benchmark substitute for a scale, but I would not be surprised if someone else has used a similar phrase. (I don’t recall all that many scales in French bathrooms in the first place.) What gave me the idea is packing my suitcase. When you can’t close the zipper, it is a clear sign you have packed too much and have to reduce.

France is well known for its great cuisine. Why do French women not become fat?

MG: That’s the question I have been asked for decades, and it took me an entire book to answer, so I cannot give a short answer. In fact, I wrote this book to be read from cover to cover and not thumbed for quick solutions. I can say I tried to offer some of the French cultures most cherished and time-honored secrets, recast for the twenty-first century. What French women do is not about guilt or deprivation but about getting the most from the things they most enjoy. They have their everyday tricks, like fooling themselves into contentment and painless new physical exertions to save exercising. They embrace the virtues of freshness, variety, small portions, balance, and always pleasure.

You say the secret about French women is their will power . . . How can French women stay disciplined?

MG: Something only requires discipline if it is not a natural preference or predilection. French women don’t have to discipline themselves about walking up the stairs or not having seconds at dinner. It is natural for them. It is part of their culture. They are not enforcing any special rules. So, developing and embracing a healthy lifestyle means developing good habits as part of your culture.

Do only slim women surround you?

MG: Increasingly not. Being overweight is becoming a growing problem in America and elsewhere. But I can tell you when I am invited to events where there are a lot of, let’s say, middle-aged French women, I am impressed by how many appear trim and fit. Certainly that’s not my standard experience in America and elsewhere in my travels.

Fast Food is fattening but a three-course dinner is not. Why?

MG: Isn’t eating raw carrots fast food? And it is not fattening. Eating jumbo hamburgers with fries and a large soda is fast food and is fattening. So, again, it is all about knowing what you are putting into your body. A three-course dinner can be fattening if the portions are large and the foods are high in calories. I remember those brownies with ice cream for dessert when I first came to America. Generally, good and balanced produce, simply prepared, and served in three courses at home or in a good restaurant just isn’t in the fattening league one finds in fast-food restaurants. I have found that people really don’t know what they are putting into their bodies and how unusually fattening the food at fast food outlets is.

According to what you said, having a meal with great relish happens at the first bite . . . What do you mean by that?

MG: When we taste wine, we swirl it in the glass, smell it then taste it. The first sip generally explodes on the palate. It is full of flavors and impressions, good or bad. You don’t need a second sip to know if you want more, and the pleasure a good wine gives is not increased with the number of sips. The first few sips are generally the most telling and pleasurable. The same is true for food. I may want the fifth bite of dessert, but I get the most pleasure from the first few bites, and I like to stop there. Actually, there’s research proving the palate is satisfied after three bites, so who needs 30?

What is the worst mistake about diets?

MG: Thinking that they work beyond the short term. If they did, we wouldn’t have so many diet books or fat people. Most will help you shed some weight while you are adhering to it, but following a diet isn’t fun and the formulaic approaches are not sustainable for life for most people. So, the weight returns.

Have you ever had a recurrence regarding your weight?

MG: No, I have been fortunate. A few times my zippers have told me to refocus and eat for pleasure but in moderation.

Your book calls for a bestseller in the United States, doesn’t it?

MG: I am not sure what you are asking. I wrote the book to share my experience and to offer it to women who were trying to understand how it is possible to eat and drink for pleasure and not become fat. I certainly did not write it anticipating it would be translated into a dozen languages or become a best seller in the United States. There are women who will benefit from the book — for example girls going off to college for the first time who tend to gain a lot of weight in their first year away from home. Or the many people in America who are overweight and could use some practical advice rather than another yo-yo diet. In that sense, I hope the book reaches a lot of people because I hope it can help a lot of people find their bien dans sa peau and greater happiness. And the feedback I’ve received thus far reaffirms that any woman can pick a few secrets/tips/tricks and shed a kilo or two.

Isn’t it very elaborate to act on your advice: To shop at a market, to set the table and then to cook so fancy? Isn’t this particularly difficult for single women?

MG: Everyone has to find his or her own healthy pattern, and one does not have to act on every one of my suggestions. That’s the point. We are all different and we have to find our own way. As a cross-cultural observation, I have pointed out that French women do shop at the market, like to cook and set a nice table. My point about the market, though, is that you should understand what you are putting into your body, and shopping and cooking teaches you that (and can even be therapeutic after a fashion).

Not just single women but also working women do not have the time to shop and cook elaborate meals daily. I don’t, so I eat out or eat simply — and there is a range of opportunities for single women — but I understand what I am eating, and look forward to the weekends at home to shop and cook. You would be surprised how easy it is to secure quality produce and to prepare it if you want to. In New York City, for instance, you can order organic produce — meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruit and dry goods — over the Internet and it is delivered to your home the next day. The young people in my office use the service a great deal. That’s their marketing. And what they get is fresh and good . . . and probably takes 5 minutes “to market” for them. And the recipes I share are generally doable in less than a half hour. I submit that is a feasible and physiologically and psychologically healthy undertaking for a single or busy woman with a small family.

What do you mean when you say, French women have their children (since they are three years old) eating very “sophisticated”?

MG: Eating is at the heart of the French culture and mealtimes are generally family times. French parents start early on offering their children wine diluted with water, for example. “Just a taste.” French families sit down for meals — generally three-course meals — and the children learn early both how to dine and to experience a wide range of dishes. Not that they like all of them — I certainly didn’t when I was young — but they are exposed. If your parents eat pizza for dinner in front of a TV, that’s what children learn is acceptable. In France, the TV isn’t worth it . . . as for the pizza . . .

The fast food industry has been getting a lot of attention in American media, most recently with films like “Super-size Me”. Is there a fast food culture in France, or abroad in general? Or do you think that “fast food” is a purely American state of mind?

MG: Fast food is more than a state of mind; it’s a state of affairs. It’s now expanding to most developed countries including France. You can go to New Zealand, one of the purest, environmentally conscious countries on earth, and you’ll find Kentucky Fried Chicken in many towns. It’s a franchised convenience store. In France, nowadays, you can find McDonalds everywhere — and at the same time people are criticizing it, they are going for it. It’s on the Champs Elysees and even in French provinces and towns. Fast food chains are popular because that’s where kids like to go — they are like playgrounds. It’s also easy for parents because everywhere in developed countries, mothers and fathers face the same problems — they need convenience and affordable food — fast food restaurants seem to fill this need.

The fast food culture is increasing in France, Eastern Europe, and the Far East and the problem with obesity that exists in America is becoming a problem in these places. Fortunately, in France, the government is reacting fast with school programs and education on nutrition.

My point is you have to understand what you are eating and control your portions. I’m not saying don’t ever go to a fast food restaurant but if you knew what you were putting in your body, you’d probably go less frequently and eat less when you go. You don’t need two hamburgers and jumbo fries — one hamburger and small fries is enough.

You have a career that requires you to travel away from home frequently. Do you find it difficult to maintain healthy eating while you are away from home? What advice would you offer professionals who struggle to maintain healthy eating habits while in the road?

MG: As I say in the book, I have a system that’s part of my lifestyle but I had to develop it because there are always more temptations when you travel. For example, I don’t eat plane food — instead I drink more water. The challenge when you travel is if you are on vacation . . . there is a tendency to splurge — so one should adjust for a “before” and “after” compensation period. Business travel is easier for me. I’m sitting in meetings most of the day, but make sure I take a walk before breakfast and on my way back to the hotel.

Your company produces very fine wines and champagnes. What is it like to work for a luxury brand? Do you feel that working in this type of industry has influenced your attitude towards health and diet? Do you find that your colleagues and clients tend to eat more indulgently than the average person?

MG: To work for a luxury company is all about image, environment, quality, privileges, setting standards for other people (in food, wine, etiquette, style) and eating in great restaurants. It certainly influences eating and drinking habits in the good sense. My colleagues and clients tend to have a greater passion for food and wine. They may indulge sometime but they know how to balance. It’s eating for pleasure. When they go to a fine restaurant they don’t say I’m not going to have bread, wine, dessert . . . This is their time to enjoy with all their senses.

Most people have a strong preference for sweet or salty foods. Which one do you crave more? And how do you satisfy your craving without overdoing it?

MG: Like most people, I crave more sweet foods, but satisfy my cravings with a few bites . . . the first few count, then the palate is satisfied. I also try not to have them at home and make them special indulgences for restaurant dining.