Food Arts presents the December 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling—and sustained—performance to Yanou Collart, France's public relations force majeure, powerhouse showman, and fairy godmother extraordinaire.
It was Collart who, in the 1970s, innovatively hammered home the then-novel concept of the chef as copy-worthy celebrity/artist. According to close friend and satisfied client Paul Bocuse, whom she first brought to the U.S. in 1972 (along with revolutionary foretastes of France's fledgling "nouvelle cuisine," a term she coined but now dislikes), "she is a magic wand" who can "launch a chef through promotion like a boxer, or a courtier, or a film."
"The key point," Collart once candidly explained, "is to know somebody." A networker of Olympic prowess, her honeybee cross-pollinizing has made her, to quote Pierre Salinger, "the best connected person in France and perhaps in all of Europe."
Today dizzyingly bicontinental, with a Paris bureau and Manhattan pied-à-terre, she transformed her band of nouvelle Gallic chefs into international media stars by repeatedly piling them onto transoceanic jets to strut their stuff at charity fund-raisers, and society potlatches. This raised the eyes of PR campaigners everywhere to a brave new world of celebrity-shaping possibilities. In the bargain, Bocuse's self-starting ascent to superstardom, Collart asserts, changed French chefs' views of their own worth: "Before, they were treated like varlets! Bocuse pulled those poor drunken men out of their basements!"
Like a glamorous Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the rabbit's hole, Collart fell into public relations by accident. Born in Belgium, she grew up hoping to pursue a medical career there. Her father, a butcher, opposed higher education for women, believing it fostered an unwelcome appetite for independence. When she was 19, he died a suicide, obliging her to give up further studies. Collart took to the road, after a shot at modeling, as a refrigerator and pharmaceuticals sales rep; her aggressive charm caught the attention of a Bic pen biggie who handed her a broad European sales territory, a job that periodically took her to Paris business parties attended by politicians and other interesting types, all of which she duly described to her hairdresser there. Thinking her client knew everybody, the hairdresser asked Collart to get her some media exposure. To save face, Collart accepted, bought a few periodicals, looked up the names of their beauty editors, rang them, and, to her pleased surprise, placed a couple of story ideas. The die, as they say, was cast.
Aside from chefs such as Bocuse, Roger Vergé, Gaston Lenôtre, Alain Ducasse, or Anton Mosimann ("I made him what he is today"), Collart has promoted restaurants like Tour d'Argent, top hotels, Champagne, and a whole who's who of moviedom, including Sean Connery and Jack Nicholson (who observed that in 20 years he'd "seen her move people around better than the Chicago Bears"). She has even worked for the Pope and the Dali Lama, helping the latter promote his plans for world peace.
Food, above all, is her abiding passion, "the bottom line in all my relationships," claiming she can't "relate to people who don't have respect for food." Before taking on clients, she insists on dining with them, saying she can detect all she needs to learn.
Over the years, Collart, who puts in 16-hour days, has persistently opened tight-shut French doors to American chefs and food journalists. Her landmark Monaco birthday marathon honoring Craig Claiborne integrated many of our prime talents with their European counterparts for the first time. And Gael Greene, New York restaurant critic and guardian angel of the housebound, elderly poor says, "France became mine the day I met Yanou. But what's most important is that she raised over a million dollars for Citymeals-On-Wheels. Who couldn't love her?"