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Interview: French Food at Home with Laura Calder

Laura Calder

THE BOOK French Food at Home by Laura Calder (Morrow), $24.95, 230 pages.

THE GIST Modern French home recipes from a Canadian cook living in Paris.

THE IDEAL READER Someone looking for uncomplicated recipes with a French sensibility.

THE EXTRAS A personal voice that is honest, humorous and reassuring.

BACKGROUND Born in Long Reach, New Brunswick, Canada; lives in Paris.

EDUCATION Western civilization, linguistics, psychology and cross-cultural studies are among the subjects Calder studied at Canadian and English universities. She graduated from the Dubrulle Culinary Institute in Vancouver and La Varenne cooking school in Paris.

EXPERIENCE "After cooking school, I went to Napa Valley for five or six months to work for a master of wine named Tim Hanni. I helped him develop a food- and-wine pairing course for college-level students. Then I went to Burgundy to work on various projects for Anne Willan of La Varenne."

HOW SHE CAME TO LOVE FOOD "My parents are Canadian, but we ate Anglo-Irish-Scottish food: oatmeal, buckwheat pancakes, pickles. We were a baking family in the English tradition rather than a cooking family in the French way. Homemade bread and cakes and cookies and jams and all that. Everything was very organic and wholesome and back-to-the-land. I mean, my mother made butter, for God's sake. On the cooking side we were very meat and vegetables. Mind you, the meat was probably some neighbor's chicken and the veggies were from our own gardens. It was basic English cooking. It wasn't extraordinary, but the ingredients were really good. I knew what a carrot ripped out of the ground tasted like."

FAVORITE CHILDHOOD FOOD Skins of organic potatoes fried in butter.

HOW SHE CAME TO LOVE COOKING "I started off my career as a journalist, but then I found myself in a public relations job, sitting in front of a computer going raving mad. I think I finally went into cooking because I was so desperate for reality. All the time I was in that cubicle I'd be listing the things I wanted to do before I died, and one was to become a really good cook. So I quit my job and went to cooking school. It's been five years since I first made that list."

WHY SHE WROTE THE BOOK "The whole purpose of the book is to show how people eat in France. They don't eat just traditional French food. I mean, when we say American food, we include pizza and burritos, right? They weren't American originally, but they are what people eat in America now, so they've become American. The same is true in France. People eat pasta there, and you can't say, 'Oh, that's Italian.' What I'm trying to show in my book is that the French don't only eat foods that have been simmered for three days."

HOW TO MAKE SIMPLE FOOD LOOK LUXURIOUS "You can cook something really basic and make it look like a million bucks. To feed some friends recently, I made a chickpea soup with maybe two and a half ingredients. I served it in beautiful bowls with an elegant swirl of olive oil on top, and everyone kept asking, 'What is this?' They thought they were getting some three-star thing. I bet that whole pot of soup cost me 30 cents to make."

EATING-AT-HOME MOTTO "Make food as nice for yourself as you would for guests."

ESSENTIAL FRENCH INGREDIENTS "Crème fraîche is at the top of the list. Also butter, olive oil, eggs, capers and bacon. I always have nuts—walnuts, pine nuts, almonds—because they are so versatile: You can put them in salads, you can use them in cakes. I also always have honey on hand."

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT "My top tool is my hands. I put them in everything. And I do everything in a large 10-inch sauté pan. I think you really need only three knives in life: a chef's knife, a paring knife and a bread knife. Another interesting tool I have is a pastry scraper. I've got this great stainless steel one about the size of an index card that I use for lifting stuff and moving things around. The only electric tool I have, without exaggeration, is an immersion blender. I do almost everything by hand. I whisk egg whites by hand, I whip cream by hand."

IDEAL COAUTHOR Rita Konig. "She wrote Domestic Bliss and has a column in British Vogue on house-y stuff like vacuuming and cleaning and how to install your whatever. She'd be fun to write a book with."

WHY SHE LOVES FRENCH FOOD "It's more playful and less rule-ridden than people imagine."

FAVORITE PLACE TO EAT "I'm not really very interested in restaurants. People always ask me where I like to eat in Paris, and I always say, 'My place.'"

Published September 2004
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