Few people have inspired me as much as Laura Calder. I must have watched every episode of her cooking show French Food at Home half a dozen times! Her natural elegance, her affinity for good food, and her flare for the chicest entertaining made her one of my idols when I was learning how to cook. I especially admire how much care she puts into every meal, something I have tried to emulate ever since. She’s an absolute treasure to follow on social media, her humor and lovely personality shining through every post. Her Fancy Fridays and elegant lunches outdoors are especially inspiring right now, when so many are craving ways to make days at home special. Here’s a Q&A with the l’art de vivre queen, Laura Calder!
Katie-Rose: You’ve written several cookbooks, you had your own Food Network television series, and your most recent book was a lifestyle guide called The Inviting Life. Where does this passion for cooking and hosting come from?
Laura Calder: I’ve been cooking and entertaining since childhood, so hosting really has been a lifelong vocation. I also, for some reason, feel the need to talk about it, hence the books and the shows – and soon an on-line newsletter. Food is important to me – and I love a great recipe – but, the older I get, the context has become even more important to me. I realized a long time ago that it’s no good having a formula for the world’s best chicken soup if all you do is slurp it down all by your lonesome self while standing over the kitchen sink. All the other stuff matters as much as the food.
You spent a decade in France. What inspired you to move there?
I grew up in the bilingual (French/English) Canadian province of New Brunswick and I went to university in Québec, so I have always had French language and culture around me and a strong affinity for them. I moved to France to pursue my interest in food, but I very quickly became interested in something bigger than that, what the French call “the art of living”, l’art de vivre, of which food is only a part. They don’t take their art de vivre lightly, either. For the French things like dressing well, dining properly, performing daily rituals with care are not frivolous niceties (which I would say is how they’re viewed in my own culture), but absolute fundamentals. That’s a big part of what draws me to the culture: I instinctively get that.
So, how does this art de vivre approach to life affect how you eat on a practical level?
Believing that everyday rituals should be approached with care – whether it’s making a bed or brushing your teeth – means, when it comes to food, that I treat it with respect. I buy the best ingredients I can, I handle them carefully, I don’t rush my cooking, I present finished dishes as beautifully as I can, and I always take the time to sit down and eat in a grateful and civilized way. It boils down to treating “little” things in life like they matter, and it’s actually quite empowering because all of us can take some small thing in our lives and improve it without a whole lot of effort.
What does a typical day look like for you in terms of food?
My husband got into intermittent fasting earlier this year, so I’ve joined him on that, which means we don’t eat at all until lunch at 1 p.m. It’s usually light and simple – egg fried rice, a saladeNiçoise, or something I concoct out of leftovers – but it’s always sit-down at a set table. The big meal of the day is in the evening. We have an aperitif to break out of day-time mode, we cook together, which is fun, and we eat around 8, always by candlelight (which is very smart when you get to be our age…candlelight is better than any botox).
What are some of your all-time favorite recipes?
I like classic home cooking, mostly European, though I occasionally borrow from Asian cusines when I’m in the mood for a change. Tarragon chicken sauté with confit green beans, a hearty lentil soup, beef stew with parsnip purée, a shredded kale salad with apple, cheddar and almonds…dishes like that paint a general picture of how I like to eat. (But I can’t pretend that Lays potato chips and black licorice swirls don’t sneak in there sometimes.)
How about when you have to get food on the table fast?
I don’t like rushing and I don’t like bad food, so if time is an issue, I just make things that are simpler, but I won’t settle for anything depressing. My idea of fast food at home is crisp-skinned chicken thighs, steak frites, sole meunière with sautéed broccolini or spinach, pasta alla Vodka, a slim French omelette and a salad. These things are all simple and quick, but they’re still real food.
I love your al fresco lunches! What tips do you have for people wanting to entertain outdoors?
In North America, people tend to make eating outdoors ultra-casual. They dress in jeans and tee-shirts and often make food to eat with the hands: corn, burgers, lobster, etc. Because the outdoors (even in the city) already has a certain ruggedness to it, I like to go in the opposite direction. I haul a proper table outside and put linens on it, I bring out wooden chairs with cushions on them, I use china, silver, glass, the works. I love the juxtaposition of that slight formality and the wild of nature. It’s exciting.
I love how you note in social media posts that something “needs more salt” or some other tweak. What is your recipe creation process like?
I worked for a long time for a very exacting cooking teacher and author called Anne Willan, so I was actually trained in recipe and cookbook writing. Writing a good recipe is not easy. When I find one that I think has potential, I test it and test it and test it again, tweaking as I go, until it is exactly as I want it and I know it is guaranteed to work. If people are going to spend time and money making a recipe of mine, I want it to make them a hero.
What tools do you reach for the most often in the kitchen? Is there something that you recommend?
I have a micro-plane grater in my hands several times a day for garlic, Parmesan, and lemon zest – ingredients I use constantly. I can’t cook without my Tenzo apron; as soon as I snap the buckle at the back, I feel organized and ready to start chopping. Good tea-towels are essential, because the cheap kind do nothing but move water around in circles. I love my copper sauté pan, which is a real multi-tasker… But, in fact, I have very little cooking equipment. A clutter-free work-space is one of the best “tools” a cook can have.
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If it’s l’heure bleu and you still haven’t dreamt up dessert, lemon posset to the rescue! Put 1-1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup lemon juice, 1/2 cup sugar, and the zest of a lemon in a very large pot. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes (the large pot is so it won’t boil over), pour into serving vessels, and refrigerate to set firm.
You are truly the Hostess with the Mostest. Tell us about one of your all-time favorite entertaining experiences.
I don’t know if I can name just one. I do love the Sunday lunches outside that you mentioned, the kind that go on all afternoon and end with a round of croquet. I also like spontaneous weeknight get-togethers with close friends. The other night, for example, we got a call at 8 p.m. asking if we’d eaten. (We hadn’t yet.) Friends had prepared a feast for guests who’d had to cancel last minute, so we hopped in the car, zipped over, and dined like kings. An unexpected party like that is always the best kind.
Where do you start with party planning: the decor, the main course, the dessert?
With the people! You can’t begin make sense of anything else until you know who’s coming. You carefully pick your guests, then you figure out what sort of menu will please them. As for décor, the most important thing is lighting. Get that right and the battle is 90 percent won.
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Hors d’oeuvres are the small talk of foodstuff, and like flirtatious chit-chat they can defeat a person, although I do appreciate their role, including paving the way to something deeper. Anyway, I’m not a natural at them. I root around in the fridge last minute and assemble what I’ve got, trying to produce what French chef @tabledereine once told me hors d’oeuvres should be: simply “beau et bon”. If you have any favourite regulars that deliver on that, please share. I run out of ideas fast.
What can fans expect from your new monthly newsletter?
I wonder myself, because I’ve only just written the first one and, presumably, it will evolve. Essentially, it’s a personal letter with news and thoughts, then I add what I’m calling “clippings,” which are recipes; discoveries of people, places and things; and recommendations. I may add interviews and video in the future, but for now my goal is simply to send out a letter that will give people something uplifting, comforting, and interesting to look forward to in these rather abrasive times.
Any other projects we should know about?
Huge thank you to Laura for taking the time to chat with me today!
Enjoy the inviting life,