Pierre Franey has been many different things in his seven-plus decades: Fisherman, hunter, apprentice, chef, immigrant, soldier, executive, husband, father, newspaper columnist, raconteur, cookbook author and television star. But there is one thing he has always been without change: French.
So it's no surprise that his new series for PBS, produced by Maryland Public Television, is about his native France, from Paris to Normandy, from Brittany to the Loire Valley, from Gascony to Provence, from Burgundy to Champagne.
"France is something I wanted to do very dearly," Mr. Franey says, over lunch one recent day. "I decided to go around and show all of France, the different regions." So last year, starting in late summer, Mr. Franey and his crew of seven spent three months traveling thousands of kilometers in three vans, shooting 600 tapes in almost two score settings. Along the way, Mr. Franey explores notable restaurants (Le Crillon in Paris, the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo), humble bistros, and farms and forests, learning how great chefs follow the traditions of Escoffier and humble chefs follow the traditions of their ancestors, learning how goat cheese is made, how truffles are found, how champagne is produced.
The shows are put together in a three-way collaboration between Maryland, New York and Paris; about 6 or 7 hours of tape per show is edited down to 27 or 28 minutes of television time, a process that takes at least three people and about 10 days, according to John Potthast, executive producer. (The series began Sept. 9; it airs in the Baltimore area at 11 a.m. Saturdays on Channels 22 and 67.)
How did Mr. Franey choose his 26 subjects?
"I know France very well," says Mr. Franey, who was born in the village of St. Vinnemer in Burgundy. He apprenticed in restaurants in Paris before coming to the United States in 1939 to cook at the French Pavilion of the World's Fair in New York.
He had some ideas on what he wanted to show, he says, but he had help from the French Tourist Office in each region, who helped him identify chefs and producers. He was looking for a variety of settings.
"I know, myself, a lot of chefs, a lot of different places, but I wanted to do all kinds of restaurants. I went to a farm, where you could eat the product of the farm, I went to some bed and breakfasts, I did some picnics on the side of the road, and things like that.
"In Perigord country, I went looking for truffles -- with a pig. Like in the old days, and you see that in the show," Mr. Franey says.
"They use dogs, too. They're trained. The pigs, you know, they love truffles. As a matter of fact, you have to hold the pig. The dog is different, they don't eat it, they just smell it."
He went to a farm where the owner milks 120 goats twice a day, and makes goat cheese right there on the spot. He went fishing for bar (striped bass), and hunting for snails and wild mushrooms. He sampled the wines of every region, from the sparkling wine of Champagne to the Chablis of his boyhood Burgundy.
There is so much to tell about each place, he says, that each show "moves very fast. There is not a lot of cooking and stirring." In each segment, Mr. Franey does some cooking, and some eating. Many of the small restaurants are run by husband and wife teams, one in the kitchen and one in the dining room.
He was looking for simple dishes, nothing elaborate. "I expect the American people to do it. I asked [the chefs and restaurateurs] to do something in their style, but the food could be done in America. That's very important to show."
The popularity of Mr. Franey's show -- it is available in 85 percent of U.S. households, and airs in 23 of the top 25 markets, including Baltimore -- is a testament to the idea that Americans are increasingly interested in food and cooking. (He has also written 14 cookbooks and was for many years a weekly columnist for the New York Times.)
Mr. Potthast ranks Mr. Franey among the top three television cooking show stars. "The audience seems to respond well to him," Mr. Potthast says. "This is his third series, they know him -- and his recipes are good." The other two series were "Pierre Franey's Cuisine Rapide," and "Pierre Franey's Cooking in America."
Mr. Franey doesn't buy the notion that nobody cooks in America these days.
"I think people are very interested in food," he says. "I travel a lot, and I see husbands and wives who are very busy, and during the week they don't cook. But on weekends, they cook a lot. I know this. People are still interested in cooking."
The following recipes are from the companion book to Mr. Franey's new series, "Pierre Franey's Cooking in France," by Pierre Franey and Richard Flaste (Alfred A. Knopf, $30). They are from the Cote d'Azur region, along the far southeast coast of France.
Jean-Pierre's salmon and cod brochettes
1 or 2 sweet red peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into 16 1-inch cubes
6 ounces skinless salmon fillet, cut into 12 1 1/2 -inch cubes