The reinvention of Mary Pochez and the birth of La Vie du Chateau

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing what I’m doing today.”

Mary Pochez dried the copper saucier and hung it on the wall, picked up a glass of red wine, added a large ice cube, and sank into a recliner on the terrace of the family’s château in the Pays de la Loire. The last guests had departed a few hours ago and she was allowing herself some downtime before heading to the garden to harvest some vegetables and feed her beloved chickens. Then she would prepare for the next round of guests.

This was not the plan. A California native/French transplant with an active life in Paris, Mary unexpectedly found herself living hours away at her husband’s family’s château in the wake of the financial crisis, which ravaged his business in finance.

You might think, “Poor Mary, stuck in a château!”  But we should know by now that appearances are only part of any story. And Mary’s is one we can relate to: a story of loss, of reckoning, of opportunity and reinvention.  Five years after her life was upended by events beyond her control, she had the idea of opening a cooking school at the château. Her program, La Vie du Château, is now in its fourth year. The road to getting there, however, was not straight one.

California girl heads to Paris

In 1978, 22-year-old Mary Milligan left behind her beach bum days in Southern California and headed to Paris for what was supposed to be a three-month modeling stint. But the modeling offers kept coming and her stay was extended. And extended again.  Mary Pochez model face profilesShe appeared in French Vogue and on the cover of Madame Figaro, and in campaigns for Guerlain, Loreal, and other companies. Her work took her around the world, she was paid extremely well, and she was having fun. Invitations to parties were endless, especially in her “home” base in Paris.  “We were always invited to dinner parties,” she said, “but I hated to go–they were always full of dreadfully boring aristocrats. One night my friend insisted I come with her, and that’s the night I met the man who would become my husband, Xavier Pochez. He was funny and charming and quite unlike the others. We were married seven years later.”

Mary married into French high society and assimilated into the aristocratic world of her husband. Yes, France has been a republic (off and on) for more than 200 years, but the old families still populate the insulated Parisian upper class. Their life in Paris was exciting and luxurious. The very best parties, gala nights at the opera, ballet, art exhibitions. They had an obscenely large apartment for Paris (about 5,000 sq. ft.!), which was the social center for family and friends to meet and pass through on their way to here and there.

Mary continued her successful modeling career until their second child was born, when she decided to stay at home to raise the children. But she was used to being active. To stay busy she learned to cook, at first by a lot of trial and error (“lots of errors! “). “But our French guests were very gracious, and the women often taught me lots of trucs. The French don’t only cook but talk endlessly about food and wine and are constantly sharing recipes and cooking tips. Famous French chefs enjoy discussing and sharing recipes and tips, too. In our social circles, our generation of women were all excellent cooks. My mother-in-law also was an excellent cook and I learned a lot from her.”

Before long Mary began another career—as hostess of fabulous dinner parties; she cooked everything herself.

And then…

In 2008 the financial crisis hit her husband’s firm, which specialized in financial instruments. The economy nose-dived.

With the children heading off to university in the U.S. and U.K., Mary and Xavier downsized to a smaller apartment for a while. But his mother (a Comtesse) was ill at the family chateau in the country and needed full-time help. They packed up their life in Paris and decamped to join la Comtesse in Bazouges-sur-Loir.

But it was not all champagne and bon bons.

Chateau de la Barbee fountain view

“Here we were, she said. “in the country. For what was supposed to be a temporary stay. I was devastated and sad. Paris was my life, where my friends were. At the château I felt alone and isolated. We were under incredible financial stress and didn’t know where things would go. I got Lyme disease and was sick for two years. I was very depressed.”

It’s hard to imagine that living in a château could be disagreeable, even agonizing. But as the Dame du Château, townspeople kept their distance out of respect.

Mary on her way to market

Her natural outgoing California personality had to be dialed down. She realized that as the “chateau people” she and Xavier had a role to play—to be distant but compassionate, “a role I never asked for but grew to understand.” Her Parisian friends rarely visited—and then primarily when the weather was nice. But winters were lonely. Plus, she experienced the longing that every mother does when her nest is empty.

In the end it was her brother in California who snapped her out of it. “Mary,” he said, “I’ll cry for you when I have time, while you’re living in your château in France.”

“He made me realize it was up to me, and to me alone, to be happy or sad,” she said. “My brother helped me see that what to me was a cold, lonely house was actually a tremendous asset. I could start a cooking school in the château instead of wallowing in my misery.

And that’s exactly what she did.

The germ of an idea

In 2013 Mary began a year of planning and preparation to turn the family château into a culinary and lifestyle destination. The following year La Vie du Château was born.

It still sounds rather like a dream, doesn’t it? Well read on.

Before she could do anything, the château needed some serious updating.  This Château de La Barbée is the third to be built on this site. The first was an 11th century fortress that sat on an island in the adjacent Loir river.

Chateau de la Barbee
Aerial view of the chateau from hot air balloon

The second château was built in the 16th century just slightly north-east of the present one. The moats and most of the commons still exist today, although several buildings were severely damaged during World War II. ​

The present-day château was built in 1790 by Xavier’s ancestor, the count François de La Bouillerie, who was Imperial Treasurer for Napoleon, and then Treasurer of the Crown. It is, in a word, old.

“Château de la Barbée was first and foremost a family château, a home,” she said. There are 30 bedrooms but only two bathrooms. There was one bath for grand-mére (la Comtesse), and one for everyone else. “What most people don’t know is that’s completely normal in family châteaus.”

There was a good reason why there were so few bathrooms. Château walls are incredibly thick, nearly impossible to break through. Also, toilets must be connected to stack pipes, which run down one side of the building. And they must be well hidden, as the chateau is a historical monument and it is not permitted to alter the original structure in any way that would change its appearance. But anyone who was paying to stay there would want their own “en suite” room.

Mary began the work of building new bathrooms, breaking through walls until they found a conduit pipe that could connect to the main stack.

Bedroom with fabric wall covering and red draperies Chateau de la Barbee
“The Cardinal’s room”, one of the bedrooms at Chateau de la Barbee; fabric wall covering

Then there were the bedrooms. They had good bones but needed serious updating. New mattresses and linens at first. Then the walls, which were covered with fabric—a common way for old walls, with their irregular surfaces, to be concealed. It took over five years to complete but eventually there were five bedrooms, each with private bath and state-of-the-art wi-fi (thanks to her brother, who spent one of his holidays networking the house).

The program takes shape

Once she had a place for people to stay, Mary was able to work on the program itself, where she faced new challenges.

  • “How many days should each course be? Three days? A long weekend? A week?”
  • Where to source the ingredients for the classes? (She chose to source local products as much as possible, even if they cost more.)
  • “I needed a website!” A team of dedicated friends contributed their time to build a site, take beautiful, appealing photos of the foods, and write the text. Mary went through a steep learning curve about SEO (search engine optimization), essential for her program to be found by, e.g., Google and Yahoo!.
  • How many dishes can a group make in a day? How do you fit in excursions to the market, wineries, other regional sights?
  • “How am I going to do it?” Each day would involve setting out a lovely breakfast for guests, prepping the kitchen, leading a group with various levels of cooking expertise through each of the dishes, setting a beautiful table for meals, clearing the table after meals, cleaning up. And starting over again the next day. Without staff.

At first, she designed a program that looked like many of the cooking schools located in Paris and around France. But it soon became apparent that without a celebrity chef’s name or best-selling cookbooks to her name, she couldn’t compete with that model. Her location also was a barrier.

While it is not complicated to get to the château via train and bus, it is not the easy one-shot trip that most tourists who venture outside of Paris prefer.

She had something most of the other cooking programs didn’t, though. The château itself became the centerpiece—offering people the chance to experience authentic château life, visiting the weekly markets to select the freshest produce and local farm products, tasting the region’s wines and having a picnic in a vineyard.

Pink Chinoiserie plate and place setting

Mary’s students learn the manners and behavioral codes that are essential at a French dinner party (never say “Bon Appetit”) and cook family favorites with her. Eventually the program was changed from a “cooking course” to “culinary vacations and the art of French living.”

In addition to cooking the group may take a trip to Angers for a guided tour of the Cointreau distillery, perhaps followed by a special cocktail. Lunch at a local restaurant by the river may be arranged.

Group of adults enjoying lunch in a garden
Mary and guests enjoy lunch by the Loir

In addition to the château, Mary’s other business asset is that she is a native English speaker, which makes her program — which is conducted in English and French — uniquely attractive to Americans, Canadians, Australians.

Although there is a massive 18th century kitchen below stairs, it is not equipped for modern cooking. Instead, the cooking classes take place in the family kitchen, and cover the basics, shortcuts, and practical tips for preparing delicious meals when time is limited.

“Sometimes we cook with a glass of wine in hand.”

Just before La Vie du Château opened, Mary and Xavier looked at each other and realized “There are going to be strangers in our house!”  But the experience has been very positive: “Xavier is the best host!”

Mary and Xavier Pochez
Mary and Xavier Pochez

After a lot of guests, reflections, and some fine tuning, “like learning how to write recipes, measuring ingredients (something I don’t often do), clarifying descriptions, seemingly endless improvements and repairs, and so many other details that I never would have thought of,” culinary holidays at Château de la Barbée have taken off.

Guests come in all ages from all over the world—in addition to the English-speaking countries there have been groups from Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, Sweden, Germany—even France. The program is particularly popular with both men and women in their 60s.

Cheese souffle on a table“What is their favorite recipe?” Mary considers a bit. “The cheese soufflé is really successful and delicious but so is the duck and the flourless chocolate cake and the Cognac baked peaches and the Tarte-Tatin and the Crémet d’Anjou…”

La Vie du Château is now in its fourth year. Mary found that four- and five-day courses worked best. They’re offered approximately every other week, from the beginning of May to mid-October. A friend now lives in and helps in the kitchen and with household duties. She finds other assistance through Work Away, which connects individuals who trade a few hours help per day in exchange for food and accommodation with hosts who need a helping hand.

She is meeting her financial goals, “although I’ve been investing every penny in château improvements. Things being in pretty good shape now means that I might actually be able to keep some for myself.  But more important to me is the pleasure of the program really working and that guests always seem to have such a memorable experience.  So all in all, it’s successful.”

Mary Pochez in chateau rose garden
A stroll in Xavier’s rose garden

Ten years after the move…

Mary reflects on her life, from Paris to Bazouges.

“If you told me in 2008 that in ten years I would be living here, building bathrooms, running a holiday program, I would have laughed out loud. Who knows what the future might bring, though, and what you might do in a crisis.

“At first our Parisian friends found us a bit fou for moving to the country, but they are impressed with what La Vie du Château has become. They are happy for us. I didn’t create the program for that reason, of course, but it’s nice to hear.

“It was not an easy transition period and it was a huge psychological adjustment. The sudden shift from a glamourous Parisian lifestyle to the aristocratic traditions of country life to cook and teacher. It took a while to get used to it. But the beautiful countryside, the connections with farmers and winemakers and cheesemakers, sharing our lives with so many different people who are eager to learn about this particular kind of French living. Now it’s what I love most.

I am really, really good where I am right now.”

Mary Pochez’s La Vie du Chateau program ( offers four-day and five-day French cookery courses & holidays. They are are all-inclusive, with accommodations at the château, all meals and drinks, hands-on cooking classes and excursions around the beautiful regional countryside. September and October 2018 classes still available. The 2019 program will be announced this October.

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