It’s difficult to refrain from drawing comparisons between Laura Calder, host of cooking show French Food at Home, and Julia Child, the French culinary ambassador for “servantless American cooks.” Just as Child demystified French gastronomy to American audiences in the 1960s, Calder is being recognized for simplifying and modernizing French food for the average home cook, 50 years later. Recently, however, the comparison grew even stronger.
Last month, Calder, who hails from eastern Canada, was made a chevalier or knight in France’s National Order of Agricultural Merit for her work promoting French cuisine, narrowing the gap even further between herself and the American culinary icon.
Calder’s James Beard Award-winning show French Food at Home is based on recipes from her cookbook of the same name and airs in the US, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Portugal.
In 2000, Child was also bestowed with that country’s highest honor when she was named into the Legion d’Honneur for popularizing French cooking among Americans most notably with her show The French Chef.
American chef Thomas Keller was likewise made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor this year for his mastery of French cooking in the US. But unlike Child and Calder who cook for the masses, Keller’s Michelin-starred eateries French Laundry and Per Se are more exclusive dining experiences.
Calder has heard the association before, but pauses to reflect on the comparison during an interview with Relaxnews in Toronto.
“She was a great teacher,” Calder says. “But I’m more of a writer, more philosophical about food. I like to put food in context, whereas Julia was more about teaching good techniques.”
It’s the same approach she brings to her latest cookbook Dinner Chez Moi released last month, which expands beyond French recipes. At its center, however, is the uniquely French way of dining: the social aspect, she says.
“The French way of entertaining is simply to spend a lot of time together around a table and eat. It’s absolutely unthinkable not to have dinner around the table. No one would sit around the TV with a bowl of popcorn for dinner.”
Though it may seem counterintuitive, French dining is surprisingly casual, she says, where food is served family-style on large platters or laid out as buffets making dinner parties and entertaining an informal — and doable — affair.
While living in France, Calder would throw simple dinner parties four times a week, she said, roasting a leg of lamb over potatoes and cooking with her friends in the kitchen.
“I think people think French food is fussy and pretentious, when to me it’s the exact opposite.”
Recipes in her new book range from lobster dip, sea bass on fennel, to more humble home cookery like meatballs and spaghetti with aglio and peperoncino, or spaghetti with garlic and hot pepper flakes.
Her new book proselytizes the simple values of gathering around a table and sharing a meal at a time when France has launched a full-scale campaign to safeguard its gastronomic heritage.
Last week, for instance, France moved to restrict ketchup in school cafeterias but will offer unlimited amounts of baguettes to children in a bid to curb obesity levels and pass on French traditions.
Last year, the country’s culinary traditions — rites like wine pairing, table dressing, and the fixed structure of the multi-course French meal — were also admitted into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
It’s precisely this “art de recevoir” or art of receiving people that has Calder enamored.
“I love the slowness, the social and sensual side of eating in France,” she says, gesturing with her hands. “They always make an effort to make the table look nice to fulfill all aspects of of dining and feed other parts of the experience.”
By current epicurean trending standards, French cuisine could be considered food of the old guard. Americans, for instance, have an ongoing love affair and insatiable appetite for Italian cuisine. Nordic cuisine is enjoying a popularity never seen before, primarily thanks to celebrity chef Rene Redzepi’s restaurant Noma which was named the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant magazine this year. And Japan boasts more Michelin stars than the country that founded the rating system.
While Canadians are less intimidated by French cuisine given their historical proximity with Quebec, Americans are still ‘scared’ of it, Calder says.
“They’re the hardest nut to crack.”
But like Child, who wrote her iconic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking for the “servantless American cook,” Calder is hoping to take the pressure out of entertaining, à la française, and bring people together.
Because, “It’s depressing to eat alone.”
Calder’s next project will be to pilot a travel culinary show on France starting with the Alps and shooting in December. The show is tentatively called France Exposed.
Her book Dinner Chez Moi: The Fine Art of Feeding Friends retails for $39.99.