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Appreciation

Alice Waters Remembers Richard Olney

August 11, 1999|ALICE WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Olney, one of the most influential cookbook writers of his generation, died at his home in Provence last week. This appreciation by Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters is adapted from her introduction to his book of memoirs, "Reflexions," which will be published in October by Brick Tower Press.

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Almost 30 years ago, when I was becoming a restauratrice, one of my partners gave me a copy of Richard Olney's first book, "The French Menu Cookbook." We had recently dared to open a restaurant with a simple format: At Chez Panisse we offered our guests no choice, serving instead one meal only, at a fixed price, composed of four or five courses, using only the best ingredients we could find. The menu changed daily, following the seasons and the market; our culinary inspiration was the regional cooking of France. We were amateurs and wildly inexperienced, but we were impassioned by food and wine.

Reading "The French Menu Cookbook" was like receiving unexpected validation. With intense conviction, it articulated precisely what we were struggling to demonstrate: that "one can only eat marvelously by respecting the seasons," that menus must be composed "in terms of what may be called a 'gastronomic aesthetic' " and that "good and honest cooking and good and honest French cooking are the same thing."

The gastronomic aesthetic revealed throughout the book was exuberant, sensual and, at the same time, deeply knowledgeable and rigorously uncompromising. We immediately began cooking recipes from the book, but it yielded more than additions to our repertoire. It reminded us that we had much to learn, and it gave us courage by confirming our implausibly high standards.

Naturally, I wanted to meet the author, and a few years later, when "Simple French Food" was published and Richard traveled to San Francisco to promote his new book, I managed to invite him to Chez Panisse and arranged a surprise reunion with his old friend Kenneth Anger, whom he had not seen for 20 years. This endeared me to Richard and helped get me invited the following summer to his Provencal mas, hidden away in the rocky hillsides above Toulon.

Richard Olney was known primarily as a writer of cookbooks. However, he also wrote indispensable books about wine and, what is more, he was a painter, a mentor, a guide and a gardener. In a word, he was an artist and one whose artistry was evident in everything he had created, from his wine cellar, hewn with his own hands from the rock and stocked with irresistible vintages, to his elegant prose, with its occasional Gallic turns of phrase. His artistry as a host is unforgettable.

My first visit to the village of Sollies-Toucas began in that state of extreme self-consciousness and absorbent, heightened awareness that sometimes accompanies a first visit to the house of someone who is very important to you. I remember every detail: the climb up the steep hill to his little house set amid terraces of ancient olive trees; the clicking of the cicadas, the rustle of the leaves in the wind, the aroma of the wild herbs all around us mixed with the smell of Richard's Gauloise cigarettes.

Richard received us wearing nothing but an open shirt, his skimpy bathing suit, a kitchen towel at his waist, and a pair of worn espadrilles. He invited us into his house, which consisted basically of one room in which he worked, ate and entertained when weather prohibited dining on his idyllic terrace. I can close my eyes and see the boulders with which Richard and his brothers had built the fireplace at the heart of the house, the copper pots hanging above, the marble mortars on the mantelpiece, the column by the table papered with wine labels, the lovely platters and tureens displayed on hard-to-reach shelves, the windows out to the garden where the table under the grape arbor had been laid with beautiful linens.

He served us a spectacular salad, full of Provencal greens that were new to me--rocket, anise, hyssop--with perfectly tender green beans and bright nasturtium flowers tossed in, and dressed with the vinegar he made himself from the ends of bottles of great wine. (That salad was a revelation and inspired countless salades composees in the years to come.) My first visit ended, many hours later, in the same way all my subsequent visits ended: in a kind of ecstatic paralysis brought on by extraordinary food, astonishing wines and dancing until dawn to 78s of Edith Piaf and bal musette music.

In conversation, Richard could be blunt in his judgments--and he was always right. In print, on the other had, although he was still always right, his judgments were expressed with discretion and finesse. He never pursued celebrity; he had neither the patience nor the appetite for it. He lived to please himself, and in doing so, he created an irreplaceable body of work.

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