Sharing Patricia Wells’ passionsOctober 22, 2013 by Lindsay
Patricia Wells certainly needs little introduction. She’s not only famous for her 13 cookbooks, food writing, and restaurant critiques but also for her lengendary cooking school in Provence. Her latest book, The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence is a collection of her favorite recipes and lessons from her cooking classes in Paris and Provence. (We’re delighted to be able to offer 10 free copies to our EYB members – just post a comment on the Cookbook Giveaway blog here.) We asked her about her cooking school and the most important lessons she gives to her students. Her passion for cooking, love of food, and delight in sharing her expertise certainly shines through:
My cooking school, At Home with Patricia Wells, came about like this. As we sat around the dinner table with family and friends in Paris and Provence, guests would constantly quiz me. “Tell me about sea salt,” one guest would begin. Another would beg me to explain the cycle of the olive and the process of making of olive oil. Some wanted to know why a Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine rated higher than a Gigondas. And then there were market questions: How do you know when an eggplant, a tomato, a zucchini is at its peak of ripeness?
I would then give a brief but hopefully informative response, but I soon began to think about expanding what was already a pretty full career in food. As restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune and author of several guidebooks and many cookbooks, I already had plenty on my plate. But our haven in Provence—the eighteenth-century farmhouse known as Chanteduc—begged to be shared. It also begged to hear even more sounds of laughter, friendship, and good times in the kitchen and garden and around the table.
So in 1995 we were ready to test the idea of a cooking school. We began with just two weeklong classes that September, and since then we have never looked back.
If I made a list of our 100 best friends, a good number of them would have started out as students, strangers before they found they way up the hill to our ancient Provençalmas, or into the courtyard and up the stairs to my cooking studio in Paris.
The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence is a compilation and reflection on what we’ve learned, the students and I, as we have prepared meals together. What joys people experience as they accomplish something they never imagined they would: the overwhelming feeling of satisfaction from the preparation of a perfect fruit tart; the pleasure of extracting a warm, fragrant, golden brioche from the oven; the giddiness of sharing a meal with a group of former strangers who quickly become lifelong friends.
The French Kitchen Cookbook is a cookbook, of course, but it is just as much about my life in cooking, the way I instruct, the way I organize, the way I anticipate, the way I direct, the way I collect, the way I constantly test and retest and experiment. It is about simplicity, it is about complexity. But all in all, it is about a way of life and a lifestyle of food and entertaining.
There are days we want a challenge in cooking as well as the exhilaration of making a truly memorable wintry beef daube, a stunning tomato tatin that captures wows from the guests at table, gorgeous puff pastry cheese wands that could grace the window of Paris’s finest pastry shop. We are willing to devote the time and effort in exchange for the anticipated reward.
Then there are days that we just want to get dinner on the table in a matter of minutes, turning to a quick sirloin carpaccio or a salmon sashimi, an instant thin-crust pizza that can be made in less than 30 minutes start to finish, a sorbet that takes seconds to make and comes to a rich and delicate life of its own as we sit down at the table.
In my classes, I like to offer students both choices, as I offer them myself daily. Many days, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to rise early, go through my routine of hiking, running, treadmill, or whatever it is that day, then spend the day in the kitchen. Testing, re-testing, creating, inventing. And then there are days that I don’t have a second to think about cooking: Maybe it’s a day of errands, appointments, and so on, and when dinnertime comes, I haven’t really a clue. That’s when I turn to the instant-pleasure recipes that are included here.
Over the years, I have watched as total novices in the kitchen are transformed into confident cooks, and beam as they and their fellow students put together a veritable seasonal feast. Almost all my students are eager amateurs willing to learn any tructhat will lead to greater success and satisfaction in the kitchen.
I don’t lecture, but I do make it clear that certain rules should be followed in the kitchen. Here are a few of the most important:
LEARNING TO COOK: Over the years, novices have asked me quite simply, “But how do I learn to cook?” I tell them to sit down and make a list of the ten things they most love to eat. It may be French fries or a lemon tart. A perfect puff pastry or chocolate cake. I suggest the list be varied (not all desserts, please). Then, as though you are a pianist learning to play a piece of music, you cook, cook, cook!–practice that first recipe until you feel you have mastered it, or at least have made it taste as good as you think you can at this point. Then move on to the second recipe on the list, and so on. By the time you have reached the tenth recipe, you will have a basic repertoire. Then, of course, make another list of ten and continue the process.
MISE EN PLACE: Meaning “everything in place.” In my cooking school as well as when cooking by myself, recipes are enclosed in a small plastic folder, and all ingredients are measured and set out neatly on a tray. This way, if I use up the last egg or drop of vanilla extract, those ingredients are instantly written out on the shopping list hanging in the kitchen. Mise en place means the cook has not only weighed, measured, washed, and chopped, but has checked the recipe for any missing ingredients, lined up equipment such as spatulas and blenders, and preheated the oven if necessary. Mise en place also makes for a neater kitchen, and I find that when the kitchen is neat, there is less chance for disaster or hysteria. (There’s another advantage to all that pre-measuring and collecting of ingredients: If you put something in the oven and turn around to find you’ve forgotten an important ingredient, you can most likely go back to the drawing board and repair any potential mistakes.)
THE RIGHT KNIFE OR PAN FOR THE TASK: Over and over again I find that students choose a knife too small for the task, or a pan that is much too skimpy for whatever is to be cooked in it. I don’t know if it is out of a sense of economy, but I always suggest cooks visualize what the end product should look like and go from there.
TASTE, TASTE, TASTE: Often a student will come to me, proudly presenting his or her creation, and when I ask, “Did you taste it?”, more often than not, the answer is no.
READING THE RECIPE: Most mistakes are made by not reading the recipe carefully or visualizing the final product. I take great care in recipe writing (and constant re-writing) to make every step as clear as possible, making it easier on everyone, giving us all a chance of success in the end.
In the end, no matter where we are cooking together, it really is all about the joys of combining good food, good wine, and friends all together around the table. The sensory experience is available to all of us, and my motivation as a journalist and a teacher is to enhance that experience, one we can enjoy day in and day out, any time.
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