Potatoes, Passion, and ‘Detox’ Days: Audrey Hepburn's Secrets To A Healthy Life

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Audrey at her home in Switzerland with close friend Connie Wald. (Photo: Audrey Hepburn Estate Collection)

It’s hard not to romanticize Audrey Hepburn. Her face hangs on dorm walls everywhere, her words are immortalized on Pinterest boards, her eyebrows are the focus of countless beauty tutorials. And who hasn’t tried to pull off her iconic black-dress-black-sunglasses look from the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s? But when I speak with Audrey’s son Luca Dotti about his new cookbook, Audrey at Home, it becomes clear that Audrey is more than the sum of her beautiful parts. She was a kind-hearted, optimistic, very real person. The effervescent beauty and frenetic joie de vivre that shone though in many of Audrey’s characters was powered from the inside — the actress cared passionately about living well.

The actress succumbed to appendiceal cancer at 63, but she “had a natural instinct toward a healthy habit,” Luca explains. She didn’t focus on strengthening her muscles, or quieting her brain, or eating clean foods. Rather, she lived a healthy life because it made her happy. Below, Luca shares one of Audrey’s favorite healthy recipes and how she lived out her philosophy on wellness:

She was all about water.
“She insisted so much on everybody … drinking a lot of water. And that really, today, is so important for the support of everything. She was really about drinking a lot of water and eating a lot of vegetables. It was a matter of how she was brought up.”

She cooked, ate, and lived by the seasons.
“She was always looking for seasonal vegetables, what was available at the market. At our small market in Switzerland, it was by the seasons. And she had a very healthy vision of her own seasons. She wasn’t afraid at all of getting old. Of course she was complaining about the wrinkles, the white hair, but she really enjoyed her older years. When she was younger, she was often repeating that, for instance, she liked to wear her hair tied in the back, because she thought that was appropriate for her age, but then she’d confide in me that she liked it looser. And her style was related to the food. As she aged, she got rid of all the complicated recipes.”

She had a “detox” day, during which she would eat fruits, vegetables, and yogurt and guzzle water.
“She did it once a month, but usually to get over a jet lag, because you feel bloated after many hours sitting on a plane. … Like a lot of people, she was coming back from trips in Africa and was exhausted — this would help with that.”

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Audrey holding fresh fish with family friend Andrew Wald. (Photo: Doris Brynner; © Doris Brynner)

She eschewed labels — but she ate what health nuts now would call a flexitarian (or semi-vegetarian) diet.
“My mother was not a vegetarian; she ate meat, but very little, in little doses. I remember once, because our house used to be a farm, I had this idea about raising chickens and rabbits. And my mother looked at me like, that’s a good idea, but who’s going to slaughter them? So we grew potatoes instead. She [ate] 80 percent fruit and vegetables.”

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She appreciated the simple things.
“[Her favorite meal was] pasta with tomato sauce. This was always everywhere, when she was coming home from a trip. Pasta with tomato sauce may sound easy, but to make it well is difficult, and no two results are always the same. Tomato sauce is not only tomatoes. Maybe with a little bit of potato, or carrot.”

Her zest for life kept her young.
“She had more than a positive outlook. She was naïve in the sense that she was like a young girl. Every time that she found something new, or went to a market, or got a new recipe, she wasn’t blasé. She was so excited, like a little girl. She took life by the day. … She never sounded panicked by the idea of being sick. She was more worried about others, about us, about the kids. … My mother, she was really interested in living the day. She was very interested in life. Even when she was in bed, she was saying oh, when I get better, we have to go to Australia. It’s beautiful there.”

Potatoes were her bread and butter.
“Sometimes we tend to forget, she was Dutch, so potatoes were a big, big part of her diet. … [And] her father was Irish. Potatoes for her, they were a sustainable thing.”

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The actress going for a swim with a friend. (Photo: Connie Wald; © Andrew Wald)

She never let her fame get to her head.
“When my mother moved to the house in Switzerland, of course it was a very small village. So everybody, for them it was a big event. They were waiting for her to come, and they were thinking she would come in a Rolls Royce or Mercedes, so they were waiting for an event. Instead, she comes in a moving van, sitting just beside the driver. … My mother had a life, rather than a history. Some people expect a public person to be historical.”

No matter where she was or who she was with, Audrey was Audrey.
“She went from wars to success to family to seasons to UNICEF and friends, and the beauty for me, is that it all matched. Everything around my mother looked just like my mother, the way she dressed and the way she cooked. I told Hubert de Givenchy [Ed. note: Givenchy dressed Hepburn for many events and was a close friend] about the book, and he wrote me a note saying I should include recipes because it was such a pleasure eating with her, and I said, the book has 50 recipes! From every different perspective, she was the woman I knew.”

She was a giver by nature, and she gave herself completely.
“My mother didn’t think she was generous. She would think, I can do it, therefore I must do it. She understood how famous she was, and that it could be used in a nice way. What she always said was that she, like everybody, would tend to be a little bit lazy. Because we are all into our lives. But if you mix the message into something more important, it can really make a difference.”

Her work sustained her, but it took a toll on her physical well-being.
Ed. note: Hepburn spent the latter part of her life supporting UNICEF, for which she served as a Goodwill Ambassador. She traveled the globe on a variety of missions, trips that Luca says she really threw herself into. But for all her passion, it took a toll on her health. “Every time she came back, as much as she jumped like a girl when she discovered new things, it took a toll on her. Maybe her life. ButI think that it’s part of life. If she wasn’t so emphatic, she wouldn’t have made such a difference for UNICEF. It’s what I like to think. She had a full life. I never saw regret in her eyes.”

Audrey’s Recipe for Pandeli’s Sea Bass en Papillote

Serves 4.

Ingredients:
20 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
A few sprigs each fresh parsley and basil leaves, finely chopped
4 potatoes, boiled, peeled, and sliced into ½-inch rounds
8 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sea bass fillets, approximately 2¼ pounds total
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:
Preheat oven to 425ºF. Mix the cherry tomatoes with the shallot, parsley, and basil. You will need 8 sheets of aluminum foil. Set out 4 sheets. On each sheet, prepare a bed with potato slices and the thyme sprigs; lay a sea bass fillet on the potatoes and thyme; and then top each fillet with salt, pepper, and the chopped tomato mixture. Enclose each “packet” with the second sheet, being careful to seal each well so that no sauce escapes, but leaving room above the fish so it won’t cling to the foil.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes. Carefully open the packets directly at the table when you serve the fish.

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Audrey at Home is available now. (Photo: Harper Collins)

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