James Beard Award winning cookbook author Patricia Wells started as a food critic in the U.S., and then Paris. Today, she runs marathons to keep in shape and teaches disciples how to cook simple, healthy, and delicious dishes. I stopped by Patricia's pad in Paris to find out the best sushi spot in Paris, her favorite types of cheese, and how she became the first American female to work as a restaurant critic for a major French publication.
LM: You've been a food writer since you were 31. How did you start?
PW: In third grade I knew I wanted to be a journalist and write for newspapers. I took the straight and narrow path: high school editor of the newspaper, college, graduate school, master's degree in journalism. I always loved to cook, and my mother was a great cook, so I always assumed I would grow up with good food around me. At that time, there were no food writers. I kept cooking all the time, but I liked art and history, so I got a master's in art history. I was an art critic at the Washington Post, but it was very boring. There was nobody to talk to! I always joke that artists and chefs are the worst to interview because their work speaks for itself. I would find myself going to the Smithsonian to read the history of something, and I thought, 'This isn't why I went into journalism.'
I gradually drifted more towards writing about modern crafts, like artisans and glass blowers. I traveled around the country and wrote a book for National Geographic on the craftsman of the 70s. I started writing about food bit by bit, and in 1976, I moved to New York. The New York Times was just starting their new sections: Weekend was their first section, then Living Home, and then Living. I started out as an editor on the daily culture desk. When they started the Home section, I worked there, and then for Living. At that time, there were [food critics] Craig Claiborne, Mimi Sheraton, and Pierre Franey. They needed another food writer and I raised my hand. I was a vegetarian at the time. One editor told me, "You don't have to eat meat, just say you do," but I like to say I'm the only person who gave up vegetarianism for their career.
LM: You are the only American woman to have been a restaurant critic for a major French publication. What was that like?
PW: It was so incredible. I moved to Paris to write for the Anglophone papers. It never occurred to me that I'd write for the French. I moved here in 1980 when the chefs who are now at the top—Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy—were just starting out. We're the same age, so we were all starting out together, and I was able to watch their rise to success. When the Food Lovers Guide to France was published, I appeared on l'Apostrophe, which aired at 8 o'clock on Friday nights. As the most watched show in the country, being on it was like getting on the old Johnny Carson. When I got home from Amsterdam, after my book had come out in Dutch, my husband met me at the door with a glass of champagne. I thought, 'Oh God, he's having an affair.' He said, "Sit down. I have to tell you something…[The French newspaper] L'Express called and they want you to be their restaurant critic."
My spoken French is fine but I've never learned to write. I called the editor on Monday and I said, "You've got the wrong girl. I don't write in French." He said, "We're a very liberal publication but you don't mind if we translate you?" I said, "I'll take it on one condition: I get to pick the translator. I have one woman who's translated all of my books and when I read it, it reads like me. She's a food writer and a translator." She and my editor are now married. It's the only match making I've ever done.
In the beginning I thought, 'I'm going to have to write differently for the French.' But one only has one way of writing. You can't change your style. It was very exciting, but it was killing me too because I kept up my [International Herald] Tribune reviews, and I never wrote about the same places.
LM: You don't consider yourself a chef. Do you think people understand what you teach better than if you had trained professionally?
PW: I think that anyone who teaches anything brings a certain amount of knowledge and passion for the subject, which is what it takes to transmit ideas, philosophies, points of view. I don't know if I would be a better teacher if I had been professionally trained. I only know that I teach with a passion and I know that it is transmitted to my students. I try to teach a lifestyle—great ingredients, simplicity.
LM: Any new or up and coming chefs you're especially fond of?
PW: I really love a couple restaurants. One is called Epigramme, at 9, rue l'Eperon in the 6th. The owner I knew from years ago. He was a maî tre d' for Guy Savoy and he opened this tiny little restaurant in what used to be a wonderful tea salon. We must go once a week. It's what I would call a modern bistro. What I love about it is there's not one dish on that menu that you would find anywhere else, and yet it's very traditional. They have little terrines. It seems as though terrines are coming back—all of a sudden they're everywhere. I forgot how good they are and satisfying.
There's another new, very ambitious restaurant on Cherche-Midi where they just serve terrines and four dishes that you wouldn't normally see. We had a pig parts salad the other day with pigs' tails and ears. They serve a very classic dish called Lièvre à la Royal, which is wild hare cooked in blood. It's very spicy, and it was one of Robuchon's classic dishes. One night they said, "Everyone's having Lièvre à la Royal, so if you don't want to eat that, don't come." It's very traditional and yet very modern—those are the kind of places I love.
At another called Itineraires, at 5, rue Pontoise in the 5th, I had a terrine with mustard ice cream. I had had that years ago at Alain Passard's—he had put mustard ice cream in gazpacho. I made it for a while and totally forgot about it.
LM: You're originally from the cheese-loving state of Wisconsin, and you now live in France, where they have more cheeses than days in a year. What are your top three favorite cheeses?
PW: I love all cheeses and I'm always finding new ones. I'm lucky enough to have two of the best cheese merchants in the country: Josiane Deal at Lou Canesteaou, in our village of Vaison-la-Romaine and Crémerie Quatrehomme in Paris. I love Vacherin Mont d'Or because it's seasonal and there's nothing like it. I love all sheep cheeses. Now that it's truffle season, I cut Chaource, Brie, or Camembert in three, put black truffles in, and let it age for three or four days. That is heavenly.
LM: You make a point of keeping fit and I understand you like to run, but when I was living here I felt I was one of the only people out jogging.
PW: People say that, but I've been running since I moved here and there are always people running in the park. If you go to the races, running's huge. I think running's more of a class thing here—middle and lower-middle class people tend to be runners. I don't know why that is, but it is. I love races here, and the Paris marathon is great. Running is a part of me that's carried me through my whole adult life. When I'm running, I feel most like myself, more than at any other time of the day.
LM: Even more so than when writing?
PW: Yes. Even cooking. I get all of my ideas when I run. My head is just cleared.
LM: Other than "simple", how do you define the cuisine you teach?
PW: That's a hard question to answer, but my books are certainly French influenced. Learning to shop is so important. For without great ingredients one can never create great food. So learning to respect ingredients and do the least possible with them, is my philosophy.
LM: I haven't come across many good sushi restaurants in Paris.
PW: My favorite is right around here: Tsukizi on rue de Ciseaux. It's very traditional—no California rolls. I went for lunch yesterday. There are no bells and whistles. They have 5 employees. It's so tiny, but yesterday they were turning people away.
LM: Where do you see the future of cooking going?
PW: I think it will become more what I was talking about the food at Epigramme—traditional, sane, healthy. Ingredients just get better and better, fresher and fresher. People are more aware of freshness and variety.
LM: Any thoughts on how chefs have become celebrities with shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef and the Food Network?
PW: I think it's too much. I haven't seen most of those shows, but I know it's not about food anymore. It's about performance. As long as you understand that, it's ok. It's entertainment. People love it. I was talking to a friend who had cancer and she said that in the oncology ward, all the people do is watch the Food Network. A lot of elderly people live for it. It nourishes people in some way, which is positive. It's a trend. We want to make everyone a star in America.