The General's Chief
This is the unusual story of my Welsh-born maternal grandmother, Margaret Massey-Perris' life as a chef, in very much a man's world at the turn of the last century. Everything that I know and love about the art of cooking is rooted in her experience, which is odd to say the least since I only met her face-to-face once, while on a trip back to England when I was a very small child.
As a young woman, she had gone off to study cookery at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, well before Julia Child's time there, which wasn't the norm for anyone to do, let alone a woman in the early 1900s. With ho hum folklore surrounding British food and its let's go to the chippy for our tea, pedestrian nature, correctly maligned as it is, or not – she'd wanted more, and was lured by the volumes of technique, pounds of butter and cream-rich cuisine that had made the French, and their food, famous.
When she graduated from the school in 1914, so had the world matriculated into WW1. Her services were quickly enlisted by the British army to serve as General Douglas Haig's personal chef in Northern France, in all likelihood because she was already in France when war broke out and recruitment for skilled helpers to feed the war machine, were sought in high order.
She became part of Haig's inner household at the British Army's headquarters in Montreuil, France, where a few kilometers away, at Beaurepaire, Haig's residence stood, and where my grandmother was billeted. It was at Beaurepaire where conferences with military staff, prestigious visitors and dignitaries were held, and where the strategic planning took place that attempted to maintain Northern France as a military stronghold for British allied troops.
Scottish Soldier and Field Marshall, General Douglas Haig's food rations and that of the top brass surrounding him, looked a little different from those awarded to the average French citizen or soldier, yet my grandmother's work was still cut out for her, requiring her to make something officer-worthy out of not a lot, on a daily basis. Thanks to access to farm fresh eggs, dairy, produce, and scant animal protein at Beaurepaire, she worked tirelessly churning the butter and making the cheeses that formed the chemical alchemy of le cordon bleu knowledge on which she relied, expanding on it out of sheer necessity.
At the end of the war, she returned to England, and married the wealthy son of a lawyer and private school principal who she'd met in France. Marriage didn't stunt her independent nature, and she continued to work in her chosen profession – this time in five star hotels as either, Chef de cuisine, or Pâtissier. She also gave birth to my mother, and two years later, my aunt.