I was recently married, just out of college, and working at my first grown-up job when Michael, my husband, came into a bit of money, a few hundred dollars that seemed to fall from the sky. He took one look at the check and thought, “Car payments!” I, ever the romantic, saw it and almost screamed, “Paris!”
Whoever said screaming will get you nothing was wrong. A month later, we landed in France.
Somewhere there's a picture of me from that trip. I'm an impossibly skinny young woman with a huge grin. I'm spinning around with arms out wide, and I look like I'm about to grab Paris and hold on to her forever. Which I did.
There were a million reasons I took Paris into my heart. Everything about the city entranced me, from the way the women walked on towering stiletto heels over bumpy cobblestoned streets to how old-fashioned neighborhood restaurants still had cubbyholes where regulars could keep their napkin rings. I loved the rhythm of Parisian life, the sound of the language, the way people sat in cafés for hours.
I fell in love with the city because it fit all my girlish ideas of what it was supposed to be, but I stayed in love with all of France because of its food and its people.
I'm convinced my fate turned on a strawberry tartlet. We were walking up the very chic rue Saint-Honoré, pressing our noses against the windows of the fashionable stores and admiring everything we couldn't afford, when the tartlet, a treat within our means, called out to me. It was the first morsel I had on French soil, and more than thirty years later, I still think it was the best tartlet of my life, a life that became rich in tartlets.
This one was a barquette, a boat-shaped tartlet so teensy that all it could hold was a lick of pastry cream and three little strawberries, but everything about it excited me. The crust was so beautifully baked and flaky that when I took the first bite, small shards of it flew across my scarf. It was butter that gave the crust its texture, remarkable flavor, and deep golden color, and a little more butter and pure vanilla that made the pastry cream so memorable. And those strawberries. They were fraises des bois - tiny wild strawberries - but I had no idea of that then. What I did know was that they tasted like real strawberries, whose flavor I must have subconsciously tucked away in my memory.
That evening, after searching for a restaurant that would keep us within the budget set by Europe on $5 a Day, we settled into a crêperie near our hotel. It was startling to see a big menu offering nothing but crepes, and not a single one famous in America! Everything we tasted was a novelty: the buckwheat crepe was lacy and chewy, and the sunny-side-up egg that accompanied it had a yolk the color of marigolds and the true taste of eggs.
I returned home to New York City, assured my mother that I loved her even though she'd made the mistake of having me in Brooklyn instead of Paris, and proceeded to devote the rest of my life to remedying her lapse in judgment.
I took French lessons, learned to tie a scarf the French way, and in anticipation of spending more time in cafés, I practiced making an espresso last long enough to get through a chapter of Sartre.
And I cooked. I made the food I'd loved in France, the food you'll find in this book - simple, delicious, everyday food, like beef stews made with rough country wine and carrots that I could have sworn were candied but weren't (I've got a similar dish on page 244); salads dressed with vinaigrettes that had enough sharp mustard in them to make your eyes pop open (see page 484); and hand-formed tarts with uneven edges that charred a bit when they caught the oven's heat (just as the one on page 458 does).
I returned to Paris as often as I could and traveled through France as much as I could. On each trip, I'd buy cookbooks, collect recipes from anyone who'd share them (and almost everyone I asked, from farmers in the markets to chefs, was happy to share), and take cooking and baking classes everywhere they were offered. Then I'd come back and spend days at a stretch trying to perfect what I'd learned or to teach myself something new.
When Marie-Cécile Noblet, a Frenchwoman from a hotel-restaurant family in Brittany, came to live with us as an au pair for Joshua, our infant son, I was working on a doctoral thesis in gerontology but thinking I wanted to make a change in my life. Within weeks of her arrival, I was spending more time in the kitchen with her than in school with my advisors.
Marie-Cécile was a born cook. When she made something particularly wonderful and I asked a question, she'd give me a perfect Gallic shrug, put her index finger to the tip of her nose, and claim that she'd made it au pif, or just by instinct. And she had. She could feel her way around almost any recipe - as I'd later see so many good French cooks do - and she taught me to trust my own instincts and to always have one tool at my side: a spoon to taste with.
It would take me a decade to make my passion my work, but shortly after Marie-Cécile arrived, I put aside my dissertation, left my job in a research center, and got a position as a pastry cook in a restaurant. A couple of years later, I landed some assignments as a food writer: I became the editor of the James Beard Foundation publications and was hired to write for Elle magazine. Best of all, I got to work with the greatest French chefs both here and in France.
It was the late 1980s; some of les grands, as the top chefs were called, were shaking up haute French cuisine and I had a front-row seat at the revolution. I worked in Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first American kitchen when he banished butter from his sauces and did away with long-cooked stocks in favor of light pan jus, vegetable purees, and his then-radical flavored oils. I tagged along with Gilbert Le Coze, the chef-owner of Le Bernardin, a new breed of seafood restaurant in New York City, as he strode through the Fulton Fish Market picking the best of the catch and teaching other city chefs how to get the most out of fish, like monkfish and skate, they'd once ignored. And I was lucky enough to spend some time with Alain Ducasse learning how he worked the sunny ingredients and the easygoing style of the Mediterranean into his personal take on rigorous French cuisine.
These amazingly talented chefs and others like them were adding flavors from all parts of the world to their cooking and, in the process, not only loosening up French cooking, but making it more understandable to us Americans - more like the melting-pot cooking that's the hallmark of our own tradition.
I was dazzled by their brilliance, but I was fascinated by something else: the unbroken connection to the cooking of their childhoods. After making a startlingly original ginger sauce for his famous molten chocolate cake, Jean-Georges urged me to taste a cup of thick lentil soup, because it was made exactly as his mother would have made it (my version is on page 90). Having prepared a meal that included a kingly amount of precious black truffles, Daniel Boulud told me he couldn't wait to have hachis Parmentier, a humble shepherd's pie (see page 258). And Pierre Hermé, France's most famous pastry chef, after making a chocolate dessert that was masterly, revealed that its haunting flavor came from a jar of Nutella (just as it does in his tartine on page 415).
For years I continued to travel back and forth between New York City and France. Then, thirteen years ago, I became truly bicontinental: Michael and I moved into an apartment in Paris's 6th arrondissement, and I got the French life I couldn't ever have really imagined but had always longed for. Finally I could be a regular in the small shops of my neighborhood and at the vendors' stalls at the market, and nicest of a...