A Matter of Personal TASTE Philosophy is the spice of cooking, says author and food aficionado Patricia Wells

March 19, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It seems an impossibly glamorous life: Restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune, cookbook author, cooking teacher, friend of Michelin-starred chefs, inhabitant of an 18th-century stone farmhouse in Provence, catered to there by the greengrocers, fishmongers and purveyors of meat and poultry -- and yet, Patricia Wells cheerfully demurs celebrity status.

"I'm not a trained chef," she said. "I'm a journalist and a housewife."

Yet one who clearly loves food and cooking. On a recent visit to the States to promote her latest book, "Patricia Wells at Home in Provence" (Scribner, 1997, $40), Wells talked about her philosophy of food and cooking at a luncheon in the fabled Willard Hotel, where guests dined on dishes from the book.

For many years, Wells said, she wasn't even sure she had her own philosophy of cooking. Her previous books, such as "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris," "Bistro Cooking," and "Simply French: Patricia Wells Presents the Cuisine of Joel Robuchon," had celebrated the culinary talents of others.

But buying the house, called Chanteduc, in 1984 in Vaison-La-Romaine was the catalyst that changed her life, Wells said. It was a world away from the "high-paced life" she and her husband Walter shared in Paris, and she had to get used to having a garden, to paying attention to the weather, to getting to know the local merchants.

"I discovered that I do have an attitude about food," she said, one that revolves around fresh regional ingredients, simply prepared and carefully seasoned. "I do use cream and I do use eggs, and butter," she said. "I like food that tastes good. But I don't go overboard."

The luncheon's dishes were perfect examples: a simple salad of oil-and-vinegar dressed crab with mint; a monkfish and fennel bouillabaisse with aioli, the ubiquitous lemon-garlic mayonnaise of the south of France; chicken roasted with butter and herbs tucked under the skin; a lemon tart and a creamy chocolate mousse/souffle.

This menu will be featured at the Willard all month, part of the hotel's Great Cooks & Their Books program, co-sponsored by Borders Books & Music (for details on other speakers see accompanying box.)

At the lunch, Wells said she gets to the United States three or four times a year, "so I never feel out of touch." She has been delighted in recent years with the growing sophistication of American palates and the subsequent increase in the quality and quantity of ingredients that can be found in farmers' markets and ordinary grocery stores.

Wells didn't start out as a "foodie." She was a copy editor for the Washington Post before moving to New York as a food writer. That was in the mid-'70s, before Americans considered chefs celebrities and restaurants made headlines. "When I moved [to Paris] in 1980, the word 'gourmet' was still a big-deal word" in the United States, Wells said. There were no free-range chickens and no organic produce. "Now you can find sherry wine vinegar, a dozen varieties of potatoes, all sorts of varieties of greens," she said. "It's so fabulous, and it's so much easier for people to cook from my cookbooks."

But she worries that even with the greater variety of foods available, people have lost the connection to "where food comes from." In Provence, she said, people are close to the sources of what they eat, from the farmers who grow the vegetables to the people who milk the cows and goats to make cheese.

On their own land, Wells and her husband Walter grow vegetables and herbs, olives, cherries, apricots, pears and grapes. Their winemaker, Daniel Combe, raises ducks, geese and chickens.

They also harvest wild mushrooms and the occasional black truffle. Wells' book is full of stories about the land and the food and the people of Provence, and there are pictures of the cheese shop owners, the butcher, the bakers, the fishmongers and others who have taken Wells to their hearts.

"What France has learned," she said, "is that the ingredient is king -- not the chef. In America right now we're in an era of camouflaging food. It's like you need 19 new outfits, you need 19 new ways to fix a food. But the ingredient is the main event."

She calls her cooking "whole food cuisine," which means cooking a whole fish, or whole chicken, or simply roasting an entire leg of lamb. Vegetables and desserts follow the season.

It isn't hard to develop your own style of cooking, she said. "Begin with a couple of things you like to eat. Find a recipe and perfect it, make it your own, until you have 10 things you're known for."

You don't have to dazzle guests with new dishes. "After all, people are coming to your house to be with you. There's nothing worse than fussing" over a meal. Don't cook something simply because it's chic if you're not in love with it, she said. You and your guests should be relaxed. "If you cook with love, it can't be bad," she said.

L Here are some of Wells' recipes, from "At Home in Provence."

Butter-roasted herbed chicken

Serves 4 to 6

1 lemon, preferably organic

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