F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. Follow the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine). Here, chef Joe Simone discusses his relationship with famed chef and cookbook author Paula Wolfert.
On June 22, Joe Simone, owner and chef at Simone’s in Warren, Rhode Island, will host a cooking class in honor of legendary chef and cookbook author Paula Wolfert to benefit the Rhode Island chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Wolfert, who announced in 2013 that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, has since become active in promoting awareness of the disease. Simone’s event will feature Wolfert’s recipes, as well as a discussion about food, memory, history and culture. We sat down with him to learn more about what inspired this tribute.
You studied math and economics in college. How did you end up becoming a chef?
I was taking a philosophy class the spring of my junior year, in 1984. It was an early morning in May, and I had pulled an all-nighter writing a term paper on Nietzsche. As I was putting the finishing touches on the final draft, the Today Show came on. Bryant Gumbel was interviewing a woman named Paula Wolfert about her new book, The Cooking of Southwest France. I stopped writing and watched. I loved what she had to say. It was very intriguing to me—the food and how she talked about the culture behind it.
Right after I dropped the paper off, I went to the campus bookstore and bought her book. That summer, I proceeded to cook my way through it. That was the beginning of everything for me. After I graduated, a friend of mine opened a new restaurant and asked me to help him in the front of the house. The chef was his girlfriend. They got in a fight, she quit, and out of necessity I started cooking in the kitchen. My first night was terrifying. But little by little it got better. And I learned.
I didn't go to culinary school; I learned by working in kitchens. And I read. I read cookbooks like some people read novels. At that time, all these books were coming out by Marcella Hazan, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Deborah Madison, Judy Rodgers—and of course Paula Wolfert.
And when did you meet Paula?
I met and spent some time with her in 1996, at a conference. I was starstruck. The following year, I got a call from her. She needed someone to help her cook for the opening dinner of an Oldways conference in Barcelona. I was so nervous. Paula’s instructions to me were to make a fish stock using calamari, squid ink and artichokes for a risotto Nero.
Paula shows up and she sniffs the stock. She tastes it, and she’s pleased. But, she says, “We need more artichoke.” And so I kept adding artichokes. In order to get the artichoke flavor without it creating bitterness, you have to do it very slowly. It's all about patience. We kept taking espresso demitasse cups, dipping them in the broth and tasting. Finally, when Paula was giddy at the stock, she turned to me and asked me to make a one-egg allioli—a Spanish mayonnaise spiked perilously with garlic. A one-egg allioli is so much harder than any other kind. It is the test of a good chef. So as a terrified acolyte of Paula’s, making a single-yolk emulsion really was a make-or-break moment. But the gods were smiling—she tasted it, looked at me and said, “This is perfect.”
She loved your broth and your allioli!
Yes, we shed tears of joy over that dish! It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. A few years later, I moved to the Bay Area. Paula had a house in Sonoma, and very often I would go up and spend the evening with her, and we would cook together. We also cooked and went to the market together when she lived on Martha’s Vineyard, and we went on many foraging and cooking adventures together in Europe, too.
How does Paula influence your cooking today?
There are many things I do on a day-to-day basis that are inspired by Paula. For instance, right now at Simone’s we’re serving a braised octopus. Before we put it in the oven, we take a piece of parchment paper, wet it under the faucet, wring it out, put it on top of the octopus and then cover it with foil. That method is directly from Paula—it seals the moisture, and that’s what a braise is all about. Another inspiration: using prunes and dry fruit in stocks and sauces. We have baron of lamb on the menu right now whose sauce was made with prunes.
It’s so clear that you, like Paula, are drawn to people and culture and what food means.
I am an old Mediterranean grandmother in the body of a 52-year-old American man!
My joy is not in having people impressed with what a good cook I am, it's that I can transform very simple ingredients into something that's incredibly pleasurable but also real. Cooking with Paula enabled me to learn about a culture by cooking its food. The soul of Paula’s work is people and tradition. And for me, that’s everything.