Chat transcript: Patricia Wells on French cuisine
July 20, 1999
(CNN) -- The following is an edited transcript of a chat with Patricia Wells, author of the traveler's classic, "Food Lover's Guide to Paris." Wells joined our chat from CNN Interactive in Atlanta on Friday, July 16, 1999.
Patricia Wells: Hello, everyone. I am here in Atlanta, saying hello to everyone. Do you have any questions?
Chat Moderator: Please tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your book "Food Lover's Guide to Paris."
Patricia Wells: I am here in Atlanta to talk about the update of "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris." With more than 500 addresses, I try to walk you through MY city, with cafes, bistros, wine bars, restaurants, etc.!
Chat Participant: Patricia, what makes Paris food tasty ?
Patricia Wells: Paris food is tasty because we use the best and freshest of ingredients, plus centuries of tradition and know-how!
Chat Participant: What is your all-time favorite place to eat in Paris?
Patricia Wells: I have many all-time favorite places to eat in Paris. Right now, some favorites include Auberge Pyrenees-Cevennes in the 11th arrondissement, plus Le Pre Catelan, grand restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne.
Chat Participant: Whenever I consider going to a French restaurant, I am presented with an abundance of high-fat foods. Can you offer some alternatives? Thanks!
Patricia Wells: You are going to the wrong French restaurants!
Chat Participant: When I went to France, all of the meat was very rare. Is this normal?
Patricia Wells: Meat is generally eaten rare to medium-rare in France; yes, that is normal. Try it; you will like it!Chat Participant: Patricia, why did you decide to become a chef?
Patricia Wells: I am not a chef. I am a journalist who writes about food. I love food, and I love the people involved in the food world, who are generally happy people because they eat well!
Chat Participant: What a pleasure to get to talk to you. When I've been in Paris (twice now), I have noticed that the city has a lively street-food scene. Seems like a great way to eat cheap. What would you recommend of street fare?
Patricia Wells: There are great Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese carryout places, not to mention almost every bakery, or boulangerie, that offers fresh sandwiches, etc. Sure beats the other kind of fast food!
Chat Participant: I love to fix some of the stews from your book "Bistro Cooking" in the winter. What do you like to fix in the summer?
Patricia Wells: In the summer I like to fix and eat cool food, lots of vegetables (usually blanched and refreshed and tossed with a light vinaigrette) and anything that is green or made with tomatoes, a touch of fine sea salt and herbs.
Chat Participant: How do you avoid paying an arm and a leg to eat in Paris?
Patricia Wells: To eat well in Paris and not pay an arm and a leg you might start with the "Food Lover's Guide to Paris"! But you can also walk the streets. All menus are posted, and you can know before you walk in the door what you will pay.
Chat Participant: Patricia, I think one of the stigmas attached to Paris is that Parisians are not friendly to American tourists. Any tips on finding places to eat where the service is friendly?
Patricia Wells: That idea of the French not being friendly to tourists is 20 years old. How old are you? They LOVE Americans!
Chat Participant: Have you attended any of the many chef schools in France? And is there a particular school that you think turns out the best chefs?
Patricia Wells: Chefs in France study all over, in small trade schools, in grand restaurants; there is not one single place. The best chefs are those who go into the profession with passion and a desire to work hard.
Chat Participant: My wife and I went on a tour of the fromageries around east of Paris. It was a very interesting experience.
Patricia Wells: Cheese is one of the greatest products to be found in France. I am a Cheesehead, for I am from Wisconsin. Seriously, there are dozens of great cheese shops in Paris, and one should not miss a visit when in Paris.
Chat Moderator: What are some of the trends now in Paris restaurants? In cafe/bistro establishments?
Patricia Wells: The trends in Paris are toward simpler and simpler food, lots of Mediterranean influence, some Asian influence, but mostly good, great ingredients simply prepared, in season.
Chat Participant: Do you eat "heart-healthy" when traveling in France? Which region's food is the healthiest?
Patricia Wells: I always eat well and healthy, no junk ever. Probably the region of Provence has the most heart-healthy fare, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and olive oil rather than butter. And of course, red wine!
Chat Participant: French restaurants sometimes serve unusual food. Is there any kind of food you think that you'll never taste?
Patricia Wells: I taste everything but admit that kidneys are not my favorite. There are so, so many great things, there are always ingredients one could live without.
Chat Participant: Why is it so hard to get a cookbook looked at by publishers?Patricia Wells: It is hard to get attention by publishers for cookbooks because, one, there is such a glut on the market, but two, they are like everyone else today, bottom line, bottom line, bottom line. Even authors with a track record are constantly being criticized for not selling more!
Chat Participant: So what IS the difference between a brasserie and a bistro?
Patricia Wells: A brasserie is a large establishment, originally a brewery from Alsace, so in Paris it is a large place selling beer and sauerkraut, and open all hours. A bistro is traditionally a small family place, small menu, just a few tables with limited menu.
Chat Participant: Rosé wines are very popular with the French. Can you recommend a good, dry, inexpensive rosé to try?
Patricia Wells: Some of the best rosé wines come from Provence and the Languedoc. Go to your local wine store (one with a good reputation) and ask for two or three inexpensive bottles. Take them home and taste them with some light food and then decide which of those you like best.
Chat Participant: The French don't just eat differently -- they seem to have a different RELATIONSHIP with food than Americans. Why do you think that is?
Patricia Wells: Americans eat every meal as though it will be their last. French know that there will be more tomorrow. So they look at life with a greater sense of equilibrium than we do.
Chat Participant: Patricia, do you have your own Web page?
Patricia Wells: Yes, patriciawells.com. Come visit.Chat Participant: Do you own any classic old cookbooks?
Patricia Wells: I have some classic old French cookbooks, the most simple variety, but I am not a huge collector of old books ... have too many new ones!
Chat Participant: What are your favorite French restaurants in America?
Patricia Wells: I love in New York Daniel, Le Bernadin, and in Atlanta Brasserie Le Coze, and in Chicago Everest Room, in Napa the French Laundry.
Chat Participant: Patricia, how is Asian food generally regarded by the French? Are Japanese or Chinese restaurants very common in France? And do you think Asian cooking has been able to affect French cooking traditions in any way?
Patricia Wells: There is a huge Asian culture in France, especially Vietnamese. The French are extremely impressed with Japanese discipline and style in the kitchen, and I think many French chefs have been greatly influenced by the style and technique and look of Japanese cooking.
Chat Participant: I have an allergy to red wine. Are there some foods that you should NOT drink white wine with?
Patricia Wells: Allergies are very, very personal. In general, because there are more sulfites in white wine, more people have trouble with white wine. You don't want to drink white wine with very rich and dense food, such as a beef daube, but I would rather see you have the pleasure of a glass of white wine with a daube than no wine at all!
Chat Participant: Have you ever desired to work in the food industry or own a restaurant? Or do you prefer the publishing side?
Patricia Wells: I already have the most perfect job; why would I want to ruin it? Seriously, I am a journalist first, and have no desire to move into the restaurant world in another way!
Chat Participant: Can you straighten me out on the best American equivalent for the cherries used in a traditional clafouti Limousin? I use sweet cherries; is that the best choice?
Patricia Wells:Most cherries in France are sweet cherries, so any kind of good fresh cherry can be used in any French recipe for cherries. But sour cherries are also delicious. The freshness is important, not necessarily the type of cherry used.
Chat Participant: In which part of Paris are there many classic French restaurants ?Patricia Wells: One finds classic French restaurants in all neighborhoods. Some of the oldest can be found in the 1st arrondissement, near the Palais Royal, such as Le Grand Vefour.
Chat Participant: Do you think Pakistani food is too spicy ?
Patricia Wells: I personally love Pakistani food. But in France, as in many cultures, the food is toned down to suit local palates.
Chat Participant: Do you have a recipe for a lasagna dish?
Patricia Wells: There are many Italian pasta recipes in my Trattoria cookbook.
Chat Participant: What ingredients are always in your pantry? In your refridge? What can't you go without?
Patricia Wells: In my pantry I always have rice and pasta, tomato paste, capers, pickles, mustard. In my refrigerator, always yogurt, some eggs, some butter, always olive oil and various homemade vinegars on my shelves as well. I can always make a quick dinner or snack.
Chat Participant: What would you recommend for vegetarians in Paris?
Patricia Wells: Almost any chef will happily prepare a vegetarian dish. You simply need to ask. Many restaurants feature vegetarian dishes, and one can also always simply order two simple starters that will usually fit into any vegetarian diet.
Chat Participant: The Montmartre seems too be a real pastoral, beautiful and old-fashioned neighborhood. But does it offer good French restaurants as well?
Patricia Wells: Montmartre remains a fairly touristy neighborhood. There are some fine wine bars, but grand restaurants are not part of the package.
Chat Participant: I love all things French. Do you know of any magazines published in English that focus on the French lifestyle?
Patricia Wells: There is a magazine called France Today published by the French government. Call your local consulate or French Government Tourist Office in New York City and ask to be put on their mailing list.
Chat Participant: What do you recommend for the budget traveler in Paris? Can you still eat well? What kind of establishments offer the best tasty deals?
Patricia Wells: There are lots and lots of good bistros that offer fixed-price menus at a good price. As I mentioned earlier, you can find them in my "Food Lover's Guide to Paris" or simply walk the streets and examine menus.
Chat Participant: Is there a special etiquette to wine bars? Anything you need to know before you go?
Patricia Wells: Wine bars are usually there for sampling various wines, so be prepared to order wine by the glass, perhaps sampling three or four small glasses to get an idea of the selection. Along with that you might have a platter of cheese or sausages or a daily special, called a plat du jour.Chat Participant: You have recipes from many eating establishments. Was it hard to get them to share their recipes?
Patricia Wells: Most chefs will willingly share, but that often still means many, many, many tries in my own kitchen to get it where I like it and where you can make it.
Chat Participant: Many of the recipes in "Bistro Cooking" call for chicken stock. How do you feel about substituting canned chicken broth for homemade chicken stock?
Patricia Wells: I HATE canned chicken stock. Any cook worth his or her salt should learn to make chicken stock. It is so easy and so so rewarding. Don't settle for less!
Chat Participant: Do you speak or understand French, other than what is on the menu?
Patricia Wells: Yes, of course, I speak and understand French. I should, after 20 years there!
Chat Participant: Why does wine play such an important role in the French meals?
Patricia Wells: France is a wine culture, since so much wine is grown there. Wine adds pleasure to the dining experience, aids digestion and makes one happy!
Chat Participant: What are your favorite places to visit outside of France? Which cities/countries have the best cuisine?
Patricia Wells: I love of course Italy, Spain and Asia. I love Japan and Japanese food and am also a huge fan of anything Australian.
Chat Participant: What is your favorite region in France for food?
Patricia Wells: My favorite region in France for food is Provence, the home of the best olive oils, wines, fruits, vegetables and people. And, oh yes, truffles.
Chat Participant: Patricia, do you have a favorite food?
Patricia Wells: I have 10 favorite foods: oysters, langoustines, cheese, wine, fruits (figs and apricots), vegetables (wild mushrooms, asparagus and artichokes) and bread. Is that 10?
Chat Participant: Do you have time to cook much at home?
Patricia Wells: In Paris I tend to eat out for my work, while in Provence I cook and cook and cook and cook. I adore being in my kitchen and adore feeding friends and family.
Chat Participant: Is there a region in France that serves "spicy" foods?
Patricia Wells: There is no truly spicy food in France, but the Basque region, around Biarritz, does have a red pepper called piment d'Espelette, and it is fairly spicy and used in everything.
Chat Participant: Patricia, have you any California wines that you drink?
Patricia Wells: I dont' have enough chance to taste many California wines, because we have such a wealth of wines to sample in France. But when in the United States I always try to sample new California wines.
Chat Participant: You seemed to have a bistro cooking book out before all the others. What is fueling this trend?
Patricia Wells: I think that the bistro trend comes from a desire for a certain sort of comfort food, simple food such as roast chicken and mashed potatoes, lots of salad, and food that is served in big bowls and passed around the table, family style.
Chat Participant: What is your favorite meal?
Patricia Wells: My favorite meal would be one cooked by myself and friends. Depending upon the season, it might include lots of asparagus, langoustines, oysters, a great cheese course, some homemade bread, and of course some wonderful wines from our cellar, maybe some magnums of Chateauneuf du Pape.
Chat Participant: What's the state of French cooking in America? Hip or just stale?
Patricia Wells: I think that some of the best French chefs can be found in America, such as Daniel Boulud, etc. They are very well trained in classical cuisine but have a great sense of what we want in America. I strongly feel that without some sense of tradition and what came before, it is difficult to be a great chef.
Chat Participant: Do you know of a French restaurant in Atlanta where you can get foie gras?
Patricia Wells: I do not know for sure which restaurant in Atlanta might serve fresh foie gras, but try Brasserie Le Coze near Neiman Marcus in Lenox Mall. If they dont' have it, they will know where to find it. You can also order great foie gras from D'Artagnan in New Jersey.
Chat Participant: When you're evaluating a restaurant, is there anything that prompts you immediately to leave?
Patricia Wells: If I walk into a restaurant and it smells awful (especially if it is a fish restaurant), I might be tempted to leave but will stick it out and let my readers read all about it.
Chat Participant: How did you get into reporting and writing about food?
Patricia Wells: I grew up in Milwaukee loving food and actually began as an art critic. I always loved food and so gradually moved to that with my journalism, and became a food writer for The New York Times in the 1970s. Then I moved to Paris in 1980 and never looked back.
Chat Moderator: Where can one find your book? And can we see you on TV anytime soon?
Patricia Wells: My book can be ordered through barnes and noble.com or amazon.com or at most major bookstores. I will be on Martha Stewart Living in the fall. You can also visit my Web site at patriciawells.com.
Chat Moderator: Thanks for coming today!
Patricia Wells: Goodbye to everyone, and thanks for the chat! Come visit me in France!
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