In the small town of Ébreuil in central France, Chef Évelyne Debourg just received the François Rabelais prize, which recognizes individuals for their work in promoting food cultural heritage in France and throughout the world.
She is a cantinière, a word that translates to anything from “lunch lady” to “dining hall chef.” In receiving this award, she follows in the footsteps of great names like three-star chef Michel Guérard, chef and ethnologist Fatéma Hal, or critic-journalist François-Régis Gaudry – widely differing personalities with a shared commitment to taste. One that Évelyne Debourg puts into practice with children through her enduring intention to shape the eating habits of the future.
“Our ancestors were the canteen workers of the battlefields, moving through warzones with their handcarts to feed the soldiers. ‘Canteen’ work is neither degrading nor unimportant: Our job is to serve a good meal to give strength and fortitude to those who need it, be they Napoleon’s soldiers or today’s schoolchildren,” says Évelyne with pride.
Since 1997, she has singlehandedly (an assistant only arrived this year) been making lunch for more than a hundred children, ages three to 11, using fresh, organic, local ingredients. “Obviously, it would be easier to just open boxes. But I want to feed them as if they were my own kids.” When you’re the family’s third generation of professional cooks, you simply can’t do things halfway.
Overseeing supplies, placing and receiving orders, management – Évelyne has the same responsibilities as other chefs, but also handles the service and knows everyone she serves. On the day of our meeting, the youngsters had just enjoyed a lentil-and-red-bean salad with homemade vinaigrette, organic beef dumplings with organic semolina, cut-to-order brie, and organic vanilla ice cream, a truly mouthwatering menu. “Healthy eating is fundamental: By learning what home cooking taste likes, with less fat, sugar, and salt, we keep children’s taste buds from being warped by industrial food products. That’s why I try to vary the ingredients I use as much as I can, changing the seasoning, the recipes, etc., so they get to taste a bit of everything. The foods you learn to like in your childhood – even if you temporarily reject them as a teenager – are foods you’ll like for the rest of your life. That means my work has long-term impact and that taste education in children is critical,” she explains with feeling.
She has long been alone in shouldering the responsibility of teaching young people to eat well in the town where she works. She earned a “Talents du Goût” (“Talents of Taste”) Award in 2006 and a medal for public service, traditionally reserved for senior officials, when Évelyne is “only” a first-line supervisor. Though she has never sought all this recognition, she does admit it has “given her wings” and convinced her of how essential her battle is. Since she began working in kitchens at age 14, Évelyne has held many positions, from the kitchen to the dining room, from a humble inn to a Michelin-starred establishment, from her Jura homeland to the Allier département where she now lives with her two boys (one of whom was bitten by the cooking bug, ensuring a fourth generation in the business). She tried her hand at binding (nearly branching off into the book business) and accounting-management (having earned a degree in it in night school). She is a multitasking Jill-of-all-trades with an unshakeable work ethic and deep commitment, combining her loves and skills in every way possible, from writing children’s cookbooks to hosting local radio shows.
Surprised to be the recipient of the François Rabelais prize (“Because I’m just a little country lunch lady”), Évelyne’s most fervent wish is that this award will raise awareness of how important food is for the younger generation and lead to new cafeterias opening across France that are smaller-scale and more personalized, turning away from centralized kitchens and industrial ingredients. “This award should encourage all cafeteria chefs who do this day in and day out, and support those who want to make a difference but don’t know how to get started. They’re not alone in fighting for taste! By showing that it’s possible to do things differently, you’re supporting a child’s right to eat good, healthy cooking. Whether we cook in a gourmet restaurant or a cafeteria kitchen, we share the same know-how. And when you’re lucky enough to have a job that makes people happy, that’s a very powerful reason to do your job well.”