Most of my articles are about great eating and drinking, and per usual, this includes some of that.
But sometimes subjects inspire you in surprising ways that take the story on a different track. Patricia Wells did that to my plan last Sunday, and likely without knowing it.
Anyone who ever dreamed of writing about restaurants, food, traveling, France or living there and doing all four would enjoy chatting with her. One would have to be a determined hermit to not envy her career.
Born in Milwaukee in 1946, Wells earned her master’s degree in journalism in 1972 and scored a job at The Washington Post. The New York Times eventually brought her aboard to write about food, and when her husband, Walter Wells, was hired as an editor for The International Herald Tribune in Paris in 1980, the newspaper got a package deal that saw her become its restaurant critic. She held the post for an astonishing 27 years.
Wells always loved food and writing, but she admits she never conspired to combine the two. That emulsification of her passions simply happened and came “from a desire to aspire to honest journalism and storytelling. It sounds kind of gooey, doesn’t it? But it’s true.”
She also wanted her story of eating her way through France to reach reg’lar folks who may never make it there. While writing her “Food Lover’s Guide to France” (published in 1987), Wells navigated the country in her rented Fiat Uno without a GPS or a smart phone, “which sounds crazy now, doesn’t it? If you got lost — no, when you got lost — you found a pay phone and called for directions.”
She’s since managed to produce 14 books tied to France and French cuisine, as well as a “Food Lover’s Guide to France” iPhone app. (Among her books’ many accolades are three James Beard Awards.)
So maybe this is as much an entrepreneurial story as a feel-good piece, a tale about a woman who just went out and did what many writers fantasize doing if they win the lottery: Cast caution to the wind and roam, follow their bliss and just write.
And if a decorated writing career weren’t enough, she and her husband also have a boutique cooking school and winery.
Anyone feeling lazy about now?
Though she’ll live out her days in France, Wells returns to the United States about a half dozen times a year. She’s in town during Derby Week at the request of Judy Hollis-Jones, a Louisvillian who visited her school, At Home with Patricia Wells, in Provence. So proud of Kentucky food, culture and bourbon is Hollis-Jones that she invited the self-effacing Wells to visit. She accepted and, after less than a day in Louisville, declared, “I’ve already fallen in love with it.”
A fan of Decca executive chef Annie Pettry, Hollis-Jones also convinced Wells to be the guest of honor for a meal prepared at the NuLu restaurant last Sunday and sign a few books. I got a few minutes of her time before dinner.
Insider Louisville: I see you brought Provence’s good weather here. Either that or it turned nice just for you, because it’s been cold here.
Patricia Wells: We’ve had the most wonderful spring so far, just beautiful. But if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t complain very much. If I did, no one would listen to me anyway.
IL: They’d just read you instead?
PW: Well, that’s what writers hope for, right?
IL: Big plans for Derby?
PW: Judy has everything planned, and just before I came, I Googled every restaurant to see where we were going.
IL: What’s on the list? (She looks to Hollis-Jones knowing the question is touchy.)
Judy Hollis-Jones: Oh, we better keep that private. Somebody might get mad at me if I don’t bring her by.
PW: I’m looking forward to eating lots of Southern things, like fried oysters. Anything little and fried I love. And your hams, I’m really interested in those.
IL: What was it about France that seemed so attractive in 1980?
PW: Well, Paris, for one, but we didn’t know we’d stay there. We thought it would be fun to go for two years and then make up our minds. Then we said, “Let’s stay another two years to (improve our) French.” In that time I started working on “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris,” and I knew we weren’t going anywhere. We tell people that we came to France for his job but that we stayed for mine.
IL: Surely working as a restaurant critic in France carries a bit more weight than being a critic in America?
PW: I don’t know that I’d say that it carried more weight. I guess I never thought of it that way. I hate to sound so old-fashioned journalist, but I just wanted to write for readers. … I did used to have a recurring nightmare though: I was on deadline and I had to have my story in the next morning — and the restaurant I was writing about closed! I know it sounds crazy!
IL: How large a role has cooking played in your writing?
PW: I always cooked, always spent time in kitchens of people I wrote with or wrote about. I’ve spent hours and days in kitchens with chefs. When I wrote “Simply French” with (Joel) Robuchon, I did that.
IL: That was 20 years ago: What about now?
PW: My favorite thing to do is get up at 5 a.m. and cook myself crazy! If someone’s coming for dinner that night, fine; if not, fine. I just love cooking.
IL: Does technology make writing any easier than before the Internet?
PW: Honestly, it’s not any easier now than it was then. Now you got to go through everyone else’s reviews; you’ve got every menu. No, it’s really not.
IL: On return trips to the U.S., what excites you about the food scene here?
PW: The exploding interest in food and farmers markets and wine and spirits … it’s everywhere.
IL: What do you miss about America when you’re in France?
PW: Everything is always open! In France, it all closes at about 6 o’clock, so you have really have to plan well.
IL: What are you working on now?
PW: Another book that talks mostly about technique. It’ll have 25 master recipes that each have five variations on techniques like searing, poaching, blanching, roasting, braising. I want people to understand why you leaving the lid off this time or why you’re using high heat that time. (Technique) is so essential. … People download a recipe from the web, cook it and then wonder why it doesn’t work. … It’s because they don’t know proper technique.
I want them to be able to take the master recipe, get the ingredients and learn how to switch them out (for each technique) like they’re switching out jewelry or makeup. … I want to give them confidence in the kitchen.