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The Interview: Bob Spitz, “The Saucier’s Apprentice”

Bobspitz Any obsessed American foodie would probably rank a week at a cooking school in France or Italy pretty high on their list of fantasy trips. Bob Spitz not only fits that bill. He went and wrote about a string of them, in both countries, in “The Saucier’s Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe.” Spitz, whom I’ve known for the better part of a decade (much of which he spent working on his massive and well-received biography, “The Beatles”) spent a few months in some of the best (and not-so-good) kitchens in the world, from Beaune, in the heartland of Burgundy, to Tuscany. In his travels, he meets earnest students and culinary poseurs, dilettantes and true creative spirits. He eats and drinks copiously as he learns technique, leavens the books with some choice recipes uncovered on his travels and spills the beans about a fabled chef or two. I caught up with him at his home in Connecticut.

Is it really that hard to find a great cooking school in France or Italy?

Not really. Once I had the format for “The Saucier’s Apprentice” in my head, I hit the internet, plugged in both countries, and was besieged with cooking schools, literally hundreds of them. After a while, however, I began to realize that two or three companies controlled the whole shebang. There was a sense that going through the cooking-school clearing houses — and by this, I mean the International Kitchen in Chicago or a woman named Judy Ebey –- meant that standards and professionalism were up to a certain high level. Many of the single-owner operators are fly-by-night operations. (And then, of course, many are not. Buyer beware.)Sauciersapprentice

If I was thinking about attending a cooking school, what should I be looking for? And what are the dead giveaways that a school is not all that it’s cracked up to be?

As anybody who has read my book knows, you can have some wild adventures on the cooking school circuit. The highs and lows are similar to riding the Wild Mouse at 6 Flags. My advice is to choose a locale that excites you. My odyssey began in Burgundy because I was in love with rustic French food and I knew the countryside was gorgeous. You want to make sure that an attractive itinerary is in place. Most schools mix several cooking classes a week with excursions to local markets, wineries, local restaurants, etc. The balance should be more cooking to sightseeing. And the description has to sound serious. What’s more, the people who have been doing this for a long time are proud of showing off their chef, their kitchen, and the accommodations. I would urge someone interested in a cooking school to make sure all the components are attractive. Any time you see a cooking school that fails to highlight its chef, it means he graduated from Ralph’s Cooking Academy in Cinncinati.

Spitz4 Based on your book, it seems that there are legions of Americans eager to improve their culinary skills — and perhaps one-up their neighbor — who are populating these schools.

In fact, the only people I met while researching “The Saucier’s Apprentice” were Americans, and many of them had been to cooking schools on several previous occasions. A few years ago, this might have been an unusual statistic, but Americans are no longer the country cousins in the kitchen. They come armed with tons of great knowledge about food and are eager to get to hit the ground running. And yes, you are right, the degree of competition is relentless. Everyone’s ego is dancing right on the tines of the fork. In many kitchens I visited, the testosterone level surged into the red zone. In the book, I describe making a souffle with a fellow cooking-school mate when we almost came to blows. (His souffle fell. Too bad.)

One thing I find refreshing is that you’re not afraid of going after sacred cows — no pun intended. And by that I mean the attitudes you found in French kitchens and classes. Too many writers laud everything about French food and culinary school, without question.

Look, a lot of the instruction is over-the-top, pretentious. And some of the more famous chefs are headcases. You’ll find a few scenes in the book that would entice Roger Corman. I also encountered a few charlatans along the way. But you have to realize that most of these schools are summer getaways. I’ve often said that cooking schools are the new Club Meds. So you have to approach the schools with a certain amount of sangfroid. They have a certain air about them you know, “Pierre will teach you the secrets of the universe.” Pierre will also treat you like dirt and flirt with your wife.

There’s a scene in the kitchen of the Meurice Hotel in Paris where you make an omelet (or twenty-two) under chef Yannick Alleno, one of the stars of French gastronomy. Without giving too much away, you were sweating bullets at the end of this and it struck me as probably indicative of what a real apprenticeship in a French kitchen would be like. Agreed or …?

Absolutely. Yannick wasn’t fooling around. And I was on the ropes, trying hard to please such an accomplished chef. Originally, he treated me like an interloper in his kitchen, but when I insisted that he teach me something that every chef must know he turned dead serious. Learning how to make an omelet for French chefs meant that you are ready to approach cooking in a professional manner. So I wasn’t about to belittle his instruction. Making that omelet was intense, like building the Taj Mahal. I realized if I couldn’t learn the omelet, I had no business continuing on my cooking odyssey.

Spitz3 How ironic is it that among your best teachers were a Brit and an American, both teaching in France?

I never expected it at all. I figured that I would sit at the knee of the austere two- and three-star chefs, but Bob Ash, the Brit, and Kate Hill, the American, were the most authentic mentors I encountered. They were more serious about teaching cooking (as opposed to just cooking), than anyone else I encountered. Bob Ash, especially, caught me by surprise. He was an ex-rock ‘n roller and looked the part, but when it came to imparting kitchen wisdom, he was the real thing in spades. Oddly enough, I don’t know if Bob and Kate could have pulled this off in their own countries. Perhaps they needed somewhere anonymous to unleash their true talents. In any case, I learned more from the two of them than all the so-called great foreign teachers rolled together.

How would you sum up the differences between what you learned in the kitchens of France and the kitchens of Italy?

Funny you should ask. I spent two months cooking in France, and at the end of it I felt I had barely scratched the surface. But after three weeks in Italy I was ready to move on. This isn’t meant to demean Italian cooking, which I love, but the French style is so complex, so challenging, so daunting. All those sauces and reductions! It would take years, decades, to master the most basic techniques. In Italy, I only had olive oil, onions, garlic, and tomatoes to work with. Italian food rocks, but I soon grew bored cooking it.

Out of everything you learned, what’s the single most beloved recipe — and the single best skill that you learned after your sojourn?

The recipe is easy: in a tiny town in the south of France, a woman who happened to be a lousy cooking teacher (almost a charlatan) taught me how to make a wild mushroom tarte tatin that is exquisite beyond belief. Where she got the recipe from, I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. The rest of her food was barely edible. But this one was a killer, and I have made it many times. The best skill I learned was how to relax in the kitchen. Before I left on this odyssey, it would take me hours to prepare a dinner for six. And when I say hours, I mean 8 or 12 at the least, and there would still be chaos as my guests were walking in. Now, when I expect six people for dinner at 7:30, I begin preparations at 6:00, and everything is finished before they arrive. That’s what a great cooking-school teacher imparts.

Okay, so confess, how much weight did you put on?

Believe this or not: after almost four months of cooking three meals a day, enjoying unlimited amounts of wine, and sampling endless desserts, I lost ten or twelve pounds. Also, my complexion was never better. My nails and hair grew like Howard Hughes in “Melvin and Howard.” Chalk up all of it to eating food made with great ingredients.

The Saucier’s Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe
Bob Spitz. W.W. Norton & Co, 2008. $24.95

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