Award-winning writer Gerri Chanel is in town promoting her new book Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures During World War II. I had the opportunity to meet her recently and asked her about how her interest in French culture developed and what inspired her to research this fascinating story
Chanel’s father’s brother’s wife was born and raised in Paris and Chanel was fascinated from a young age listening to her speak French, her manner of food presentation, and the long, animated discussions with relatives at the dinner table. Though her aunt probably never knew it, she was the person who sparked Chanel’s life-long interest in French language, culture, and cuisine.
Chanel studied accounting and went on to become an international business consultant. The research and business writing skills that she acquired in her profession provided a good foundation for the work that was required to research the history of how the French planned and conducted the largest museum evacuation in history in the years running up to WWII. The operation’s purpose was to remove precious art from the Louvre and to store it in the countryside to protect it from German bombardment.
Chanel first learned of this massive undertaking while watching a documentary film on the Louvre many years ago. A brief mention in a film that a painting from the Louvre was hidden during the war by using it as a false ceiling in a restaurant kindled her interest. In researching this bit of history, Chanel found out that the information was incorrect and set out to write an accurate account. This led to many years of research, both in the United States and in France, culminating in the writing of her book.
Chanel’s work as business consultant first led her to Paris a number of years ago, where she taught management and accounting at several business schools. During this time, she was also able to indulge her longstanding passion for French cuisine. She started a small business called “Paris on Your Plate,” where she conducted wine and cheese pairings at her Paris apartment.
Participants in “Paris on Your Plate” classes enjoyed tasting up to thirteen cheeses and four wines per session. Chanel spoke to them about how French cheeses are made and guided them through the tasting, beginning with the mildest cheeses and leading to the strongest. Lasting about two hours, these sessions were quite popular.
Chanel was well prepared to launch this venture. Several years prior to moving to Paris, she received a certificate in cheese appreciation from a NYC organization called Artisanal Cheese. She received an additional certificate after taking a week-long course in the subject at the University of Vermont. Two French dairy specialists were among the professors who taught this course.
Chanel will talk about Saving Mona Lisa on Tuesday, July 8 at Adrian Leeds’ popular Parler Paris Après Midi, a free monthly meeting where guest speakers talk about a wide variety of interesting topics.