Updated: May 20
A few years ago, I rented a room in Paris at the apartment of an American acquaintance. The apartment was also rented to a young French women and her baby. After a full day of work and taking care of her son, Valerie went into the kitchen to start cooking dinner. “May I help?” I asked. “Non,” she said with a smile. “It is nothing.”
I watched from the doorway as she put a pot of water to boil and then placed some mushrooms, a little garlic, and some fresh herbs into a large frying pan to brown. Wasting no time, she cleaned the lettuce, made a simple vinaigrette, and sliced the bread. She took out a plate and arranged an assortment of crudités.
Turning her attention back to the mushrooms, she stirred the mixture and lowered the heat. She took a box from the cabinet, placed some fettuccini in the pot of boiling water, and proceeded to open the package of meat she had picked up at the butcher.
The pans on the small stove top were adjusted to fit one more skillet. The flame on high, a little olive oil added, and the escalopes de veau were searing in the pan. She took the cheese from above the refrigerator and unwrapped it. Smiling, she said “It should be perfect”.
Once again she turned her attention back to the stove, turned the veal over, drained the fettuccini, and added it to the pan of mushrooms. She added some crème fraiche a little salt and ground fresh pepper. Making room in the large skillet, she transferred the veal to the side, lowered the heat, and covered the pan to finish cooking.
Taking the platter of crudités and basket of bread, she announced, “C’est prêt”. Dinner was done.
We ate and talked in a slow, relaxed manner that could only happen when there is no where else to be. We finished with the cheese and salad and instead of feeling full, I felt satisfied.
“Some dessert and café,” she asked, as she placed two slices of fruit tart on the table. She laughed when she saw my expression. “Non, non, I picked it up over the weekend at the patisserie when I was visiting my parents. They make such good tarts that I couldn’t resist,” she said.
Dinner was delicious, remarkably elegant in its simplicity. The ease she had in the kitchen amazed me. I asked, “Where did you learn to cook?” “At home,” she replied, a little surprised by the question. She had grown up eating well and never considered cooking to be difficult. Quite the contrary, it was natural.
For Valerie, it was natural. I found that same experience a chore. What was I missing? What was it that she knew that I didn’t? Could I learn to cook with such ease and joy? I set about finding out.