A year and a half ago, I had the chance to interview Laura Calder, host of French Food at Home on the Cooking Channel. She had lost her voice, because the night before, she had won her James Beard award. Over the hour-or-so that I talked with this Canadian cook, I found out that Laura became serious about cooking only once she arrived in France (some things are inevitable). That she hates tripe and horse meat (who can blame her?). That she has stick-to-your-ribs tastes (like her even more…). And that Laura truly believes French food is unpretentious (after my own heart). Here, the first of two parts of the interview.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
Kerry Saretsky: Why French?
Laura Calder: Well French was easy for me because… I grew up going to French school so I spoke French already, it wasn’t an intimidating place to go, and I love food. So to me there’s no better place.
KS: How would you describe French cuisine to someone who had never encountered it before? What makes it different?
LC: I think what’s nice about it in the modern world right now is it’s a very coherent cuisine and it’s not all over the place. In North America right now, we’re trying out so many new things, sometimes we really need some grounding in something that’s not all fusion or confusion—as some of might say, confusion food. It’s really solid back-to-basics cooking.
KS: What surprised you most about French cooking as you encountered in France?
LC: Well I think I saw it probably like a lot of people think—that somehow it was fattening or heavy or old-fashioned. What I discovered is that it isn’t any of those things; it’s incredibly healthy. It’s very suited to the modern world. It’s not like we think of French food as being what people made fifty years ago or a hundred years ago. They’ve modernised just like us. Women are working hard at home every day, people work, they’re busy. So, you know, the cuisine has evolved along just like ours.
KS: So in what way do you interpret or impact traditional French cooking and what is your style or signature that you bring to it?
LC: Well my style is home cooking for one thing. You know, what makes French food so exciting is it has so many layers, right? You have the regional layer, the regional side of the cuisine. You have home cooking. You have haute cuisine. My focus is home cooking, and I think that’s a side of French food that hasn’t often been focused on.
KS: What defines French home cooking?
LC: It’s not as foreign as people think. It’s got a real style, but at the same time they use ingredients that I grew up with: apples, carrots, potatoes, milk, cream, eggs. I don’t have to run around with a dictionary trying to find these ingredients and it’s really easy to get them anywhere in Europe or North America. So I think that makes it really appealing; you can do something that’s different from, you know, English or American cuisine, but it’s very accessible.
KS: How will your show translate to an American audience? I believe it’s the same show that was filmed for the Canadian audience to begin with?
LC: Yes, the Canadians really liked it. I think everyone was just shocked to see that French food was actually not difficult… That they actually wanted to eat everything they saw. It’s incredibly healthy, it’s all natural ingredients, nothing’s fake. It’s [also] not only what the French eat, but how they eat. Meals three times a day. And you sit down. I think that kind of lifestyle around food is also part of what makes us healthy.
KS: What is the difference between the way the French and the Americans approach food?
LC: Oh, I think the French approach it with love and lust sometimes. But I think in America it’s approached very much with fear. People are very afraid to eat, they’re afraid they might get fat, they’re afraid there’s going to be something in it that’s not good for them, they’re afraid to cook because they don’t know how. People are afraid of making fools of themselves because they’re not going to be able to cook like a chef. But in France, when you go in to someone’s house, it’s very much home cooking and they’re not trying to impress you. What’s important is bringing people together and making something delicious and hearty and homey.
KS: How can we all be more French in the kitchen?
LC: Do a lot less. You know, just take the aperitifs for example. In France the aperitif will be someone opens a bottle of Champagne, and you would have a glass of it, and there’s a bowl of olives and a bowl of pistachios or something…or just slice some sausage, and that’s the aperitif. Completely unpretentious.
KS: Do you think [the fact that French food can be simpler than American food] is a result of the fact that the produce and the meats are superior, at least in flavor, in France?
LC: Yes. That’s a big part of it. It’s really easy to cook well in France because the food’s so good to start with. I always look like a bloody genius when I’m cooking in France, but I have to work a lot harder when I come back. And people don’t like to hear that, they don’t want to hear that the food isn’t as good here, but it just frankly is not.
KS: You went to a French school, but are you from a French background in Canada?
LC: My name Calder so I have a very English background, but I did grow up in a bilingual province. I went to a French school from age twelve.
KS: Do you remember what you were eating when you decided to make this transition in your life to cooking?
LC: I grew up on the east coast of Canada. The food I grew up with was, you know, chowder, milky fish chowder, brown bread with baked beans, that kind of sort of thing. That’s another thing about French food that people forget, is that you don’t have to have it in isolation. I have a new book called French Taste where I talk about this, where I say, you don’t have to – this is nothing against Julia Child because I love Julia Child…
LC: But mastering the art of French cooking, holy Moses, that’s a commitment. It’s a vast cuisine, I wouldn’t cook anything either if I thought I had to master all the bloody cuisine to make a chocolate mousse.
LC: Whereas I say make a chocolate mousse and have it after your pasta or make a coq au vin and have tiramisu. I mean these cuisines in the Western World really work very well together. So I think we could mix it up a bit more. Duck à l’orange doesn’t mean that you have to have strawberry soufflé for dessert.
KS: What do you see as the relationship between writing and cooking?
LC: I really love studying languages even just to keep my brain going, but I think it’s an obsession with my mouth, I love everything that goes in and I love what comes out and I love listening to different ways people speak. I love poetry, I love literature, I love accents, but writing was my first love and I wanted to write about food.
Check back for the second half of the interview tomorrow!