Today I have the pleasure of introducing Melissa Clark, a prolific cookbook author (she’s written over 40 cookbooks) and food columnist for The New York Times. On March 10th, Melissa released her latest cookbook, Dinner in French and it’s full of delicious French inspired recipes “filtered through Melissa’s Brooklyn mentality.”
One of the things I loved most about the cookbook, besides the delicious recipes and wonderful photography by Laura Edwards, is the anecdotes Melissa includes with each recipe. In this interview, Melissa shares memories of her family visits to France every summer, how she spent a semester in Paris and more.
J’espère que tu apprécies! — I Hope you enjoy!
Tell me about when your love of France and French Cuisine began.
It started when I was pretty young, maybe age 5 or 6. My parents would take my sister and me to France every summer for the month of August. They were psychiatrists, and back then psychiatrists traditionally took the month off. So we’d exchange our house in Brooklyn for a house in France, a different one every year. It was a great way to see the country and eat lots of amazing food! We did this until I went away to college, so it was my whole childhood.
What was the most memorable dish you remember from your childhood visits to France?
There were so many, but the pains aux chocolate stuck with me the most. I was amazed that the French got to eat chocolate FOR BREAKFAST. It seemed so impossibly wonderful.
The original title of Dinner in French was going to be, First we get lost, and then we have lunch, due to the getting lost on your way to Michelin-starred restaurants in the pre-GPS era. What was one of the most unique restaurants that you found yourself at during your August vacations in France?
For my sister and me, the fancy places, like Cabro D’Or/Beaumaniere, were the most unique because we never got to go to fancy places in New York. I remember we ate outside in the garden next to the swimming pool. It was also a hotel, but so much fancier than any place we’d ever stayed, so decadent and delightful and we girls got to go play in the garden while my parents lingered over the meal. I’ve been back since, but that childhood meal remains the best. I can’t remember what we ate, but there was fromage blanc (sort of like thick yogurt) for dessert, showered with sugar and heavy cream and the reddest tiny strawberries imaginable.
You’ve had quite the career in the culinary world as a prolific writer of over 40 cookbooks, and as a food columnist for the New York Times etc. When did you first decide to write your latest cookbook, Dinner in French?
It’s a book I’ve always wanted to write, but it took me a while to figure out exactly how to do it. Because I’m not an expert on French cuisine and I’m not French, I had to find a way to tell my story about France without it seeming odd or presumptuous. Filtering French food through my Brooklyn reality though, was the answer.
When you first began your career as a food writer, who was the first well known chef you had the opportunity to meet in person?
Larry Forgione. I was a coat check girl in his restaurants, an American Place, and I was also starting my food writing career right out of college. Next was Tom Colicchio and Claudia Fleming, from Gramercy Tavern.
One of the things I love most about reading through Dinner in French, is how your anecdotes included with each recipe read like an inside look in your love of all things French. Before your recipe for a delicious Grated Carrot Salad with Preserved Lemon and Coriander, you mention your student days in Paris. How long did you study in Paris, and what was one of the most memorable experiences?
I only studied there for a semester, and really, while I should have been learning French more seriously, I spent the time wandering around Paris, guidebook in hand, eating at all the patisseries and boulangeries and ice cream places that I could. My semester was much more about the food I ate, rather than the French I should have been learning.
You worked with photographer Laura Edwards for the photography included in the cookbook. What did you enjoy the most about working with Laura and how involved where you with the styling process behind each photograph?
Laura is brilliant! She’s got an incredible eye and really gave the book a gorgeous, fresh look. I also had Joss Herd as a food stylist, and she made all the food look so much better than when I developed the recipes at home. This said, I was on set for the entire photo shoot. My job was to mess things up to make everything look slightly more approachable and less perfect. They made it beautiful and I added a tiny touch of reality into every shot.
To those who are new to French cooking & techniques. What is the recipe they should try to recreate first?
The savory Gruyere and Ham cake. It’s as easy as muffins and so flavorful! And it’s not like anything we really have in the US, cheesy, savory and salty. For people who don’t want to use ham, olives make a great substitute.
One of the recipes I’m looking forward to trying out the most, is the Blackberry Frangipane Tart. Out of all the recipes included in the book, do you have a personal favorite?
I love the Campari cake, it’s so moist and dense and citrusy. And easy, too.
You’ve been honored with multiple awards from the James Beard Foundation and the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals.) How did you feel when you won your first award?
Blissful and shocked. It was a great feeling to be recognized by my peers!