I love that your latest cookbook, A Grandfathers Lessons, was inspired by your 13-year-old granddaughter, Shorey. We were not even supposed to do a book! Shorey and I started working together on [2015 TV series] Heart & Soul. It was a lot of fun to work together, so we decided to do a series of videos, and my daughter said, You have to do a book! Thirty-six of the 75 recipes we taped in a video. We even did videos on table manners, how to fold napkins. The book covers everything from arctic char with fresh tomato to a hot dog cut so that it curls up when you cook it.
How long have you been cooking with Shorey? I started when she was a year and a half old. I put a spoon in her hand when I was holding her and helped her stir the pot. Since she was 4 or 5 years old, when she came to the house, shed get involved. When she was small, shed help hand me ingredients or stir the soup or wash vegetables. Its also a question for someone at my age, over 80 years old: How do you communicate with a teenager? Im much faster in the kitchen than her, but shes much faster with her iPhone and her computer than I am. When we cook together, we spend time together around the table, talking. Its a learning experience, too: Theres lots of science, math, geography in cooking.
Did you enjoy making the shorter videos for A Grandfathers Lessons? We did [the filming] in my back house here in Connecticut, and we did it in the summer when Shorey was out of school. It was a less lavish production than we do usually on PBS. We worked with Tom Hopkins, the photographer who shot the photos for the book, whos worked with me for 35 years. He was the producer as well. It was a lot of fun.
As the co-founder of Boston Universitys gastronomy program and a longtime dean at the International Culinary Center in New York, youve literally made a career out of teaching people to cook; was teaching your own granddaughter different? When Im giving a class for professionals, its different than when I give a class for home cooks. You try to massage the lessons a little bit for the person youre teaching. With my granddaughter, its rewarding, because shes my granddaughter! The memories of the kitchenof your mother, your father, the smells, the tastesthey stay with you for the rest of your life.
What are your favorite tips for teaching kids to cook (and eat)? I think that there is not really one way of doing it. Certainly getting them exposed to cooking is important. People come to my house and they know were going to have some nice food, but they feed their kids something else beforehand: I dont think thats a good idea. Whats on the table is whats on the table in our house, and we dont discuss it. We never bought baby food; we took some of the food we ate and put it in the food processor. By the time my daughter was 8 or 9 years old and eating spaghetti and clam sauce, she already recognized the taste from even earlier.
You also have another book out this month called My Menus featuring illustrated menus like the ones you create for your own dinner parties. Why are handwritten menus so important? Ive been married 51 years, and I have 12 large books of menus. I can see what we ate 50 years ago, and I can also see my mother, my two brothers who are gone, and those are great memories. I can see what my daughter had for dinner for her 15th birthday! In the book, you can fill in the menus with what you served, and your guests can sign the opposite page. Its a great way of remembering.
Youve been an artist for almost as long as youve been a chef, with an online gallery of your paintings for sale. How did you get started painting? I first came to America in 1959, and I think the next summer we rented a house with a friend in Woodstock, New York. I liked working with my hands, and wed refinish and redo old furniture wed find on the street. In Woodstock, there were a lot of artistspeople painting and so forthand we started painting. And then when I went to Columbia University [in the early 1960s], I took a class in drawing and sculpture, so Ive been doing art a long time. I actually just finished a new painting half an hour ago!
Your first cookbook came out in 1975; whats changed the most in the food world since then, and whats changed the least? Good food is still good food. That will never change. But the diversity has changed a lot. When I came to America, there was only one lettuce in the supermarket, and it was iceberg. There were no shallots, no kale. The supermarket is better today than its ever been. I read somewhere that there are more than 5,000 farmers markets in America today. People say nobody cooks now, but all the food from those farmers markets has to be going somewhere. Back in the 70s, all the best continental restaurants in the U.S. were French. You couldnt even get good Italian food in New York! Now, there are 24,000 restaurants in New York with food from all over the world.
What does your home kitchen look like? I have a very, very large counter6 by 9 feet. I have two dishwashers. Functionality is the word for me. In professional kitchens in Paris, youd think the chef is blindhe can grab things, open the oven, all without looking. Its like a dance. A kitchen setup like that can really make things easy. Good equipment, easily accessible, is really important. I have a wall made of barn wood with probably 80 different pots and pans hanging from it. It looks nice, and its also useful.
What do you cook when youre cooking for fun? I always cook for fun, frankly! Weve had so much zucchini in the garden that lately Ive been making zucchini bread, zucchini soup. Thats really how I cook. Its determined by the market and the garden. Whats in season and what were in the mood for. Our taste has also changed; I dont cook the same things now that I did 50 years ago.
Do you watch any food TV shows today? Not really. I do occasionally watch Rick Bayless or somebody on PBS. I watch Anthony Bourdain on CNN because hes a good friend, but honestly, I dont watch too much food TV. So many of them are reality shows with a lot of yelling that I dont like so much anyway.
In the late 1950s, before you ever came to America, you served as personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle; what was that like? It was another world. It was another world of cooking; how many people there were in the kitchen. At a state dinner, you have to deal with protocols, how long the dinner is supposed to be, and all kinds of other little rules. Its also different when you just cook for the president. Every Sunday after church, I would make a meal for the president and his whole familychildren, grandchildren, everybody.
If you could cook dinner with anybody, living or dead, who would it be, and what would you cook? It would always be with family. For me, I would bring back my father or my mother and cook with them again. I know what they like and what they will be pleased with. I did enjoy cooking with Michelle Obama one time out of the organic garden at the White House, but I would probably go back to people I love who were close to me.
Interview has been condensed and edited.