The Laura Calder Interview

This book happened because I was inspired by a bunch of 80-year olds. You just meet them by accident and then suddenly a book comes out of life and what you’re living. – Laura Calder on her latest book, Dinner Chez Moi.

Last Sunday, Cook Culture hosted their first official culinary celebrity, Laura Calder.

Host of the James Beard Award-winning series, French Food at Home, and author of the cookbook of the same name, along with French Taste, Ms. Calder was on the road to promote her latest book, Dinner Chez Moi. The book, a departure from French cooking, attempts to take out the often stressful equation of throwing a dinner party with a spirited celebration of recipes shared with family and friends, most notably John Evans, a gifted cook and host, who inspired many of the meals in the book. In true Calder fashion, she entertained the audience with her easy style and funny, engaging stories. I interviewed her before the festivities.
What is the common misconception about throwing a dinner party?

I think the common misconception is that you have to do something differently from how you normally cook dinner for your family. And I think if you’re cooking for friends you don’t have to go all out. I think people book too far in advance, they get nervous, they set it up almost making it so perfect that it’s a complete disaster and everyone’s stiff and you can’t have fun.
What would say are some golden rules for easy entertaining?
One of mine is don’t do individual plating of things. Don’t try to cook like a chef and design these plates. Just put a nice big convivial bowl of something on the table and let people help themselves. And it’s nicer to do that too. For one thing, people help themselves and you’re not running around trying to serve. Secondly, you’re not forcing people to eat more or less than they want because they can choose themselves, and I think it means that it shows you’re sharing instead of doing this sort of more mincy restaurant-like entertaining – I really like family-style.
Cook very much family-style food. I’m not saying never experiment and try something fun – and if you do, say it’s an experiment and have fun with it -but I think people eat out in restaurants so often that the big treat is to get something that’s home cooking. I’m staying with a friend of mine here and her mother’s Polish and she cooked this thing for me last night called Bigos which is pork and sausages, sauerkraut and cabbage with mushrooms, and it was sooo delicious. Cooked for days. It was so good, and we had a big thing of that with dumplings and then she served muffins and yogurt – it was such a great dinner. She was just feeding her family and I just happened to be there. So it’s not this going out of your way and freaking yourself out.
What do you always have on hand for impromptu entertaining?
Champagne? No. Booze? (laughs). I don’t buy a lot in advance. I always have eggs. If you have eggs, potatoes and onions and people come over, you need a bag of salad and you can make one of those Spanish omelette things,which is a bit of treat. You can always make omelettes or souffles, or egg dishes. I think that’s the best for impromptu. And I always have red lentils. I have a red lentil recipe in the new book, which I love. I make it once a week. It takes 20 minutes and it’s fantastic.
What is the perfect hostess gift?
I often give – this is a ridiculous hostess gift – but I have a paper fetish. I loove paper products and there’s a shop that I go to sometimes and buy these scrolls of beautiful Japanese paper. So sometimes I just put a ribbon around the paper and give people paper. Sometimes it’s great to get flowers but it is hectic. If you get flowers and you’re trying to cook, it’s a bit of a pain.
Are you for or against potluck?
It’s not that I’m against them, I think it’s a nice idea, but you always get someone who brings a bag of chips. You have to know your friends before you do a potluck.
What is your very first food memory?
Well, I used to do little cooking things with my mother. I don’t know if this is my first food memory, but she used to put me on the counter and I’d make cakes with her. I also used to make something called lettuce rolls. You go to the garden, you get lettuce leaves, you lay them flat, you sprinkle with salt (demonstrates rolling) you roll them, and eat them. But the rolling you see, completely changes the recipe.
Can you pinpoint a singular experience or culinary epiphany when you fell in love with French food?
I remember when I first went there having the same attitude that everyone I meet now seems to have. I remember thinking, (in a whiny voice: it’s heavy, I don’t want to eat this, I’m going to Provence and learn Mediterranean cooking). I don’t know if it was an epiphany, but I’ll tell you one thing that happened, I went to France, I was living with Anne Willian at a cooking school and eating amazing meals. We were working at cooking school so we had, crepe suzette with candied orange and ice cream on it. We had a meat stewy thing everyday with vegetables. We sat down for meals and we all ate together. It was really regular and in the first few months I lost 20 pounds! So, explain that. Bread, butter, croissants. It just fell off.
Who are your mentors and why?
Well, Anne Willan (of La Varenne) was a huge mentor. I worked with her for many years on and off. She was English with a love of French food and she believed in technique and believed in classics and not messing around with things. All the froufy-froufy stuff I learned in cooking school, she just beat it right out of me. So my style of cooking now, was very much influenced by her. And the other person who has been a mentor, and a muse, is a man called John Evans, an Englishman who lives here, in Bamfield.
It’s who your book is dedicated to, right? Yes. And I met him through Paris friends, actually in Bamfield and I stayed with him for a while. Did I mention he was 80? He’s an amazing cook. A lot of English-style stuff but very classical and he is an incredible host. And I met him with other friends of his and he was giving dinner parties. The way he entertains had a serious impact on me. So yeah, the book’s for him.
What ingredient can’t you live without?
Ingredient you can’t get enough of?
Parmesan cheese.
One that will never touch your lips?
Commercial cheap salad dressings by a company that starts with K that I won’t mention.
What’s you go-to comfort food?
That red lentil dish.
Guilty pleasure?
Lay’s potato chips.
Most overrated food trend?
Foie gras poutine. That’s overrated.
Favourite culinary destination?
Bamfield, at the moment!
Most memorable meal this year?
This guy John Evans, all his friends live in Toronto, and I’ve been there for a couple of years, soon to leave. It’s not that it’s the most memorable, but I remember it because it was a party and I cooked it for all these guys that meet at a pub. Old people. So I rented out the pub room and I made a stew and apple tarts and a salad-y thing. I just loved having them all in that room together and they were so happy.
What are the most essential tools for cooking?
You need a decent sharp knife. You need a microplane grater. Or at least I do. I go nuts without one. And I think a saute pan is multipurpose.
What is your most prized possession?
Maybe not the prized, but I can’t leave the house without a moleskin notebook.
What basic recipes do you advise for cooking novices to learn as a starting point?
I think everybody should learn how to make a soup, because then you can make a whole bunch of different soups. You should learn how to make a bechamel sauce because you can make souffles which are great and they’re healthy. They can be meat or no meat, they’re a one pot instant thing to cook. I think everyone needs to know how to make a stew with vegetables because it’s one pot cooking, it’s super healthy- meat, vegetables, broth. And you should know how to cook eggs well.
I always travel with good quality salt, do you travel with any cooking tool or spices?
Tea bags. I travel with tea bags. I don’t eat much in the way of breakfast but I always have tea and I need to have my tea. It’s King Cole from New Brunswick. My mother sends it to me. If I don’t have it, I miss it.
If you could invite anyone – contemporary or historical – to a dinner party, who would they be?
Madame de Stael, Nigella Lawson, Nancy Mitford, Winston Churchill, but really, I’d just have my friends.
Favorite music to cook by?
20s, 30s and 40s music. Hands down. There’s a radio station on satellite called 40s on 4, it’s the best.
Where will you next adventure take you?
I’m leaving Toronto and I think I’m moving to Montreal. I’m on the road for another month and a half and I’m working with a new producer there. I’m scared to move and I’m scared to stay. So I don’t know. And also with this book, it was a departure from French food, so am I going to go back to French food? I don’t know. When you finish a book or any project, you’re on empty and have to slowly fill up again. This book happened because I was inspired by a bunch of 80-year olds. You just meet them by accident and then suddenly a book comes out of life and what you’re living. I guess I just have to keep living and see what comes out.
Random quotes from the event:
“Drink alone all you want but don’t dine alone.”
What to do when you’re depressed:
” Melt some butter and saute an onion.”
On Dining Out: ” It’s too expensive and usually not very good.”
On her new book, Dinner Chez Moi:
“You’re supposed to dive in and get lost in it.”
“It’s a very much a “why do” not a “how to”
On cooking:
“You need to make a recipe ten times to understand it”
” I like to try new things (dishes at a dinner party) and adding friends into the experiment.”
“When looking for inspiration, I see what the season is and think about whose coming for dinner.”



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2 Responses to “The Laura Calder Interview”

  1. Love Laura’s show. Simple, elegant … and the show’s not bad either! Terrific interview Shelora.

  2. Thanks Arne! Great to hear from you. Her new book is lots of delicious fun.

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