All you need in life is 10 recipes, and you can get anywhere, declares Patricia Wells. Readers of her last three cookbooks know however that Wells can inspire even culinary novices to expand their repertoire indefinitely. Her latest collection, The Paris Cookbook, serves up over 150 distinctly Parisian recipes inspired from such diverse sources as prize-winning chefs to taxi drivers wives.
When I finished my book on Provence, I wanted to go back to Paris and present food as it is today as opposed to 20 years ago, said Wells. She claims that food preparation in Parisian kitchens has become simpler but that a broader variety of ingredients are used today. The greatest change, however, is that the best chefs now use more creativity in preparing classic dishes, each one adding his personal stamp to a dish. We may think of this as normal, but its really only been this way for the past 15 years in Paris. Twenty years ago, chefs just followed the book!
Wells arrived in Paris in 1980 for an assumed two-year stint. Now, 21 years later, she gives cooking classes here and in Provence, but she never went to cooking school formally. Im a journalist first, she maintains. As the food writer for the International Herald Tribune, she has spent countless hours in restaurant kitchens sniffing the sauces of the most celebrated French chefs. Hopefully three people are happy when Ive published a review. Me, because Ive found a new place to eat. The restaurateur, because hes been written about. And the reader, who has a new restaurant to try.
A review begins with her call to reserve. Do they put me on hold for 20 minutes? Are they pleasant? The welcome is important! she says. Arriving at the restaurant, she captures a mental Polaroid portrait does it smell good or bad, how vast is the menu, what is the ambience like? She claims that her first impression of a restaurant usually becomes the defining one.
In some ways, reviewing is a very personal thing. Its subjective, but of course, you have to have a good background. At a certain level of cuisine I want to taste things I cant make myself and be able to recognize that 12 chefs may have had their hands in a plate, she explains.
Reading The Paris Cookbook, one does sense Wells special gourmet relationship with Paris. A detail or anecdote recalling time spent with one of her favorite chefs precedes each recipe, and she provides addresses for her preferred wine-sellers, restaurants and merchants. As much a presentation of her lifes work as a personal tribute to the capital of French cuisine, Wells book captures her Paris.
My Paris is the outdoor markets most of all. Thats where you see French culture, daily living, all classes of society shopping together, she concludes. The French have a way of making every day a festival, and at the market, every morning is like Christmas to me. The care that merchants take with their displays, the æsthetics and tradition that go into that, it shows above all a respect for food.
That respect, along with a passion for food, are all an aspiring cook in search of 10 signature recipes needs to savor the endless enticements of Paris.