I sweep wisteria leaves from the terrace table, knowing the last of the French Kitchen classes for Fall are over. Winter sessions begin again in December just in time for foie gras-laden fetes, but now a call to culinary arms sees me packing bags and books and heading for Chicago. Vetou Pompèle and I are flying thousands of miles to cook a Soupe de Citrouille (a pumpkin soup with white beans and foie gras) for the Meals on Wheels Chef’s Gala, Sat the 22nd. On Friday, Vetou will be giving a demonstration on preparing Breton Gallettes or buckwheat crepes at CHIC (Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) and on Sunday I will be nervously giving the graduation speech to a too large crowd.
What do I say to 200 students who have diced and sautéed their way through hours of stainless steel kitchen classes? What do I say to the thousand family members who ponied up the funds, ate the homework and kissed the new burns better? “Where did you go to school?” they’ll ask. Knees knocking and mouth dry, I’ll have to confess that I learned to cook at my grandmother’s hand, scoop by scoop. First pasta and biscotti, then gnocchi as I adjusted my large palm size to her tiny one—a handful of flour, one egg and one tablespoon of water, the best pasta’ciutto dough is stiff. Long before I even had a passport, I learned how to find Italy as my Mom made anise cookies on Nona's flour-crusted waffle iron.
Later, in my Southwest France 'school', I learned how to distinguish the flavors of Gascony at the kitchen tables on my neighbors’ farms—traditional charcuterie, potager ripe tomatoes and golden fresh eggs. I learned the color and smell of really fresh food in the weekly markets where I shop and gossip and flirt. Jean-Claude the cheesemonger with a blue-eyed twinkle likes to chat but I have tasted the high pastures of the Auvergne in the Salers, Cantal and Laguiole cheese he makes me sample. Coming homewith market baskets overflowing, I drive along the swooping curves of a two lane road and study the newly-turned fields of this summer’s sunflowers, corn, wheat: chalky on the ridge near Nerac; deep chocolate here in the Garonne River valley; russet and gold where they plant the Armagnac grapes near Eauze. This is Terroir 101.
What shall I tell these new graduates? tired and broke new line cooks? pastry slaves? aspiring chefs? Easy. Now, you can start learning, watching, tasting, smelling. Now, you can find your own France whether you live in Chicago, work in Las Vegas or shop at the neighborhood supermarket. Now, you are ready to earn your FF—Finding France, a degree that might just take a lifetime.