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Paula Wolfert -The Interview

PAULA WOLFERT -THE INTERVIEW Author and culinary authority Paula Wolfert has appeared multiple times on “Good Morning America” and other national television shows. She also has a column in Food & Wine Magazine. Her articles have appeared in Saveur, Gourmet, The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Cooks Magazine, Food Arts to name a few (dozen that is!) She has reached a milestone- being inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame for her classic book Couscous. We were honored to have few minutes of her time.

Your name is intrinsically associated with the culinary arts, but what was your profession leading into it?
I was a student at Columbia majoring in English….it was the fifties and young women were really going after an MRS not a BA! (I got myself a Harvard man by the way!).

What drew you to the world of food and when did you start cooking and writing about it?
When I nabbed this guy Wolfert, my mother thought I should take some cooking lessons. At the time, famed Chef Dione Lucas was teaching in NYC. My mother paid for six classes which I eagerly consumed and then promptly quit college and went to work for Chef Lucas for free for an entire year. I was not even 19 at the time and I developed gall bladder problems from this rich diet- My husband loved it though! When I had to take a leave from my apprenticeship I found myself replaced on return. Dione was not necessarily an endearing individual but I gained a wealth of knowledge and skills.

At this time my father-in-law’s publisher was also James Beard’s publisher and I was introduced to James Beard which helped take my culinary journey to the next level. James Beard took me on as one of his apprentices and promptly hooked me up with Chef John Clancey and we catered dinners together- I worked as his sous chef at restaurant Chillingsworth- by summer’s end I was exhausted. Beard tried to set me up at the Four Seasons in NYC but I had had enough of the restaurant kitchen, so I sped off to France and I was there eight years then another seven in Morocco. This was the time when Julia Child was still in Paris, I did not know her at the time but we became good friends later. Being a chef or being involved in the food world was definitely not a respected career choice back then. I had temporarily left the food world and worked as a editor for the Paris Review. At the time I had two kids so I was absorbed in this and family life.

1968 I became a single mom in Morocco and now I needed a way to make a living- being that I was a writer, some high officials in Morocco wanted a cookbook and so they officially put me in touch with all the great Moroccan chefs. In fact I was placed in the home of a woman who was the main chef, called a dada, for the late King Mohammed V and I lived with her for 6 weeks. I then came back to the U.S. where I met my present husband Bill. I tested all the Moroccan recipes here in the US and then we went back to Morocco and the government sent us to every town and then the best cook in that town created a dish for us. That’s how the book CousCous came to be. This year I’m actually receiving an induction into the James Beard Hall of Fame for this book!

I then started working on the Cooking of Southwest France and I went all over Southwest France and everybody helped me! (My secret? Bring presents…you never take before you give!) This is where I had a bright idea- my thinking was if I could learn a recipe from a famous chef- put it in an article, personally perfect it for my cooking classes, and then go around teaching it and always giving the chef the credit I could make a decent living without being a restaurant chef– I nailed it! I was teaching in 40 cities a year! For example I was teaching the methods of making confit before anyone else was teaching it, I had learned a lot from the father of Ariane Daguin, owner of D’Artagnan – her parents were very close friends of mine.

My writing continued to other parts of the Mediterranean and the more people I met the more information and friendships I developed. I used to meet through faxing folks all over the region- in the old days it was like e-mail! Now of course I use e-mail extensively and keep meeting new people all the time. For example I met the famous Turkish Chef Musa and wrote about him in my quarterly column in Food and Wine Magazine. I have lots of friends all over Europe and the Middle East who are food journalists and we share tips and information on what’s happening in food. My culinary journey is constantly invigorated and enriched by my long established and newer connections in the field, and here we are!

Name one defining moment in your career.
In 1978 when I realized I could teach, write a magazine article about it, and compile it in book form- when that came together it was a defining moment in my career. I could actually make a living at this!

What chefs influenced you the most?
Michel Bras, Lucien Vanel. Andre Daguin and Andre Guillot

If you could keep only 3 culinary books, what would they be?
Hmmm that is hard. I like my own food…

Favorite kitchen gadget:

Most memorable dining experience:
There have been lots of great meals, I honestly can’t pin point one.

Favorite ‘elbows on the table hole in the wall’
Swiss Hotel on the square in Sonoma.

A food item you hate to admit to liking
Ketchup smothered hamburger

Three things in fridge right now:
Odwalla fruit drinks, Benoit yogurt, and 4 pounds of fresh peas.

Secret junk food indulgence:
Potato chips


From a cookbook’s inception to completion—how long does that take?

About 5 years from the time I write my proposal to the time it appears in print. I do a lot of traveling to gather recipes, then I test and teach them. Plus I write articles for various magazines, where they also get tested. By the time I get everything together, I have a book! For example the originalCooking of Southwest France was a compilation of 19 articles written over 4 years. That was back in the late 70’s, during the time of the nouvelle cuisine, and most food writers and chefs were eager to expand the use of beurre blanc. I was pretty much alone writing about the French southwest and its more traditional rustic forms of cooking with duck and goose fats.

Who sets the timeline and length of book?
The publishers tell me what they want, then I do what I want. Mediterranean
Clay Pot Cooking didn’t take as long as my earlier books, because I had so much of the history, recipes and zeitgeist of the region in my bones and I had done a great deal of the necessary field work. I had lived in Morocco for seven years and France for eight. When I lived on the east coast I’d travel to Europe five times a year as a food journalist. I collected a lot of information that way.

Who decides, ‘Hey we need this kind or that kind of a book’?
Well, I decide what I want to write and then approach publishers thorough my literary agent. I think The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen was a big success because everybody was so into “fast, fast, fast.” It wasn’t about the Slow Food Movement, per se, rather it was about cooking slower, period!

How do you choose the recipes for a particular book?
My passion is for Mediterranean cooking. I like dark, earthy foods and sturdy homey dishes. I don’t like contrived food. I like food with history behind it, a story if you will. I’ve always been interested in rustic ingredients such as wild boar and salt cod, I have an equal fascination with sophisticated foods such as foie gras and with complex kitchen techniques such as low temperature cooking and finding ways to attain richness without heaviness. These themes run through all my books.

How do you choose sources for ingredients?
A quality dish always starts with quality ingredients. That’s why I use companies like Preferred Meats. Your products are about as good as it gets.

How many times do you test a recipe before it goes down in print?
At least three times. The first time I make a dish it’s delicious so I type up the recipe and follow it and then it usually doesn’t work so well. Then I have to figure out why and do it a third time, and as many more times as it takes to make it work.

At what definitive moment do you decide “This book is done!”?
When it’s due! The due date is a blessing. Anyway, since I’m always writing about the Mediterranean, if it doesn’t get into this book, I’ll put it into the next one!

In a bookstore, looking through the cookbook section, how would you evaluate a book differently than perhaps a non-author?
I don’t know really. I’m always on the look-out for fresh ideas and original voices. If a book doesn’t interest me and I put it back on the shelf that doesn’t meant it’s not a good book.

Story by John Paul Khoury,CCC
Corporate Chef ,

We are honored that Paula Wolfert uses us as a resource when developing recipes for her definitive cookbooks.


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