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Laura Calder Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Laura Calder gave up a cubicle for a leave of absence for a Vancouver cooking school. From there it was a stint in the Napa wine country and the seven years or so in France, working with Anne Willan and then crafting her critically acclaimed cookbook  French Food at Home. Now Laura is poised to debut this Thursday, March 29, on Food Network Canada with her new  show built on the radical premise of her book: that cooking simple, elegant French food might actually be fun. It's certainly delicious. I met up with Calder recently to discuss why French food has been ignored in North America's gourmet media and talk about what we can learn from the kitchens of our Gallic cousins.

 Gremolata: My first question is unfair: why has no one else done this?

Laura Calder: I don't know! When we pitched the show, the one thing we knew we had going for us was that no one else was doing French food.

Gremolata: How did you figure this out: that French cooking needed to be revived here?

Laura Calder: Well, I didn't set about thinking, "where is the hole?" I went to France to work for Anne Willan, not to write a book. I actually went to see my agent to write another book - some grandiose idea - and she said, "but, what do you know about?" I answered, "French food, but that's been done". Still, she said, "Just tell me what you know". And I did. Then, she told me to write it down in 30 pages and that was the proposal and it sold almost right away. I guess it's like what everybody says: when you write about something that's really true to you that's what works.

Gremolata: So, French food wasn't done?

Laura Calder: I realised that even though French food has been done and done, you have to revisit everything because it changes.

Gremolata: You mean your cooking isn't Julia Child?

Laura Calder: No, but she's great. I watched a bunch of Julia Child videos a little while ago and they're so fun! She had such a great personality. But the food! I thought, holy cow! It was amazing because I never understood why people here would say, "French food is heavy, full of sauces and so complicated." But then you look at the recipes from the 50s, 60s and 70s...

Gremolata: Like Richard Olney's 'Simple French Food'.

Laura Calder: Yeah! Though again, that cookbook's great. It has great recipes. But the food That I know in France is home food. I'm trying to show a picture of what French home cooking is: sometimes it's regional dishes, sometimes classic, sometimes the cooking from women's magazines, sometimes it's restaurant inspired, or made in a tagine because there's so much North African influence there.

Gremolata: This isn't Haute Cuisine.

Laura Calder: No, it's not.

Gremolata: Italian cooking dominates on television and in books by people like Jamie Oliver and Mario Batali. The latter iis outspoken on his view that French food is antiquated and too fussy.

Laura Calder: He is?

Gremolata: Yes, he attacks it for being all about cream sauces and that sort of thing.

Laura Calder: That's not fair! If you watch the show you'll see very fresh and simple food.

Gremolata: You say that it's an attitude.

Laura Calder: Yeah. I think it's an approach. One of the things that makes French food so great is that they have all the same ingredients that we have here. Potatoes and beans and lamb and beef... there's nothing 'weird'. You've seen it all before, it's just maybe prepared in a different way. The other thing is technique: you don't need a lot of fancy equipment, just basic things: a bowl, a spoon, a whisk and a knife.

But, you know, I think the most important thing is what the French have to teach us is WAY they eat. We think it's all about what's in the pot and the level of our knife skills, but we miss the point. we have to sit down, get some people we love around us and enjoy it. This calorie counting thing that goes on in North America is so crazy! If you use really good, healthy ingredients and eat properly it doesn't matter if there's cream or butter - and the French do use olive oil, too - it's so much healthier if you balance that way.

Gremolata: It doesn't have to be a big deal.

Laura Calder: Right. Just make something one thing. You don't have to commit to making every course. You don't have to make Gran Marnier soufflé just because you made coq au vin. I think people have this idea that French food has to be so big. You know, France is full of real people too.

Haute Cuisine is the same idea as Haute Couture. It's not like everyone in France is running around in ball gowns. And people don't eat ten course meals every night either.

Gremolata: But the ingredients in France are so good. Even in the supermarkets.

Laura Calder: Well, it's true. The food is really and truly amazing there. What's funny is that they have very small kitchens. People I know here have these huge kitchens full of every kind of equipment. But my French friends have minute ones with practically nothing in them: a few old banged up pots. Their ingredients are good, but on the show, I test everything in Long Reach, New Brunswick. So, if you can find the ingredients there, you can find them anywhere.

Gremolata: OK, but can you really cook French if you live in Thunder Bay?

Laura Calder: There's something that's more French than foie gras or truffles from the Perigord. That's adapting to wherever you are and using the local ingredients. It's not very 'French' if you're in Thunder Bay and you order in a foie gras from across the ocean. What would be French would be to go out and shoot something or pick some dandelions, or whatever and cook with what's there. I don't know, you'd go and have moose!

I guess we'll see if I get that across on the show. I mean, I know what French food has always meant to me and it's never been too complicated or weird.

Gremolata: I'll tell you one thing I like about your book is the first chapter is all about having a drink and snacks with your guests before dinner. It's very civilised.

Laura Calder: The aperitif. When I lived in France, I don't think a day went by when I didn't have one. [Laughs.] Every time you go to dinner at somebody's you always have something before you eat. It can just be nuts and a drink. It's about the act of sitting down and saying, "here we are, we're about to eat, so let's chat'. But here, I've gone to dinner parties where I feel that I'm at someone's wedding banquet! There are all these munchy things all over the place. It's too much! It's overdone and complicated; I don't know who could have the time. I would be ripping my hair out. It's a good example, actually, of how we complicate things much more than they do in France.

People here get so freaked out and think they have to do all these things just to have a dinner party. In France, I found my cooking actually became much more humble. And now, when I'm back in Canada even I will start to think 'everyone's going to expect all sorts of fancy things from me' and I have to stop myself and defiantly decide not to do too much.

Gremolata: So you're not spending five days in the kitchen beforehand.

Laura Calder: No! No, it's better if you spend more time eating the food than preparing it. But, I do enjoy cooking, or spending a day in the kitchen. I'm not sure everything should take 30 minutes.

Gremolata: What other differences are there, do you think, between our Anglo-culture and France?

Laura Calder: One thing is wine. We're way more pretentious here. In France you don't match your wine glass with a type of wine, or roll it around and talk about its legs. I was at a restaurant recently where a couple walked in, order their wine, then reached down to a suitcase where they had their own glasses! Can you imagine walking into Pierre Gagnaire, or someplace like that in Paris and presenting your wine glasses! What they would say! It's crazy.

Gremolata: What else?

Laura Calder: One thing I see here is when you open a menu it'll say "steak from beef that roamed in "X" field, whose name was Roscoe and so on. It's obviously a novelty because in France, or in Italy, they just serve it to you. I guess I'm not sure about the whole song and dance. Even things labelled 'organic'. Why shouldn't the other things be called 'inorganic'. Shouldn't that just be what you expect?

I guess I think we could simplify it a bit. There seem to be all these young grads from cooking school who come out armed a million squeeze bottles, and are laying flavour onto flavour onto flavour onto things like scallops. I worry that they don't really know what anything tastes like.

Gremolata: People who teach cooking classes often tell me similar stories. They say their students come in and want to cook like Michelin starred chefs right away. But you can't master these things without years of study and practice.

Laura Calder: Why would you want to? You know? Pot au feu is stew. A crepe is a pancake, what poor people would eat because they had no meat. French food is French food, but it's also all of ours too. We all learn these techniques. So maybe we should take more ownership of French food and just enjoy it.


Comments


As someone from Thunder Bay, I'm hoping you're not suggesting we're outside the realm of good eating :)

Laura is bang on - my humble summary of the approach is, "Use what's in your backyard (literally and figuratively), it doesn't have to be complicated, you can even enjoy wine out of gas station tumblers, and ANYTHING tastes WAY better if you're eating it with someone you enjoy spending time with." (This is pretty darned close to values my Italian parents taught me, so I'm OK with calling it a "more European" approach).

BTW Laura, you also hit the nail on the head for Thunder Bay - my mom would dig up tender young dandelion greens in the spring and either serve them in a salad setting, or cook them up with olive oil and garlic. Keep up the great work!
Post Reply By Tony in THUNDER BAY on 5/15/2009 12:16:35 PM

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