ABOUT JOANNE WEIR
For more information about Joanne Weir's books, recipes, culinary journeys and public appearances visit joanneweir.com.
Why I Love Cities
Cities really are the most amazing places. In just about every one you can find dozens of interesting restaurants, farmers' markets and outdoor stalls, great bakeries, gourmet or specialty food markets, and little shops stocked with ingredients from all over the world.
As a cook, I don't think there's ever been a more interesting time to live in a major city.
I'm not sure when I first started to think about the city the way I imagine a 17th-century villager might have. You know, foraging the fields and streams for whatever grew locally and seasonally.
I still go to the supermarket, but more and more I look around for the smaller shops that make or sell locally-produced goods and ingredients. Or I go to the neighborhoods that have a really strong ethnic identity to find special ingredients. I walk or ride my motor scooter and just keep my eyes open for that new bakery or candleshop; the little shop selling handmade paper; or the one that's been selling the best meats for decades now. I try to keep an eye out for the new places, but also for the old places that somehow endure in our cities.
A Teacher First
I think of myself foremost as a teacher. In my new series with KQED, Weir Cooking in the City, and in my books and cooking classes, I try to inspire people to cook and also to inform them. I want to take away the mystique for people, for my students. Cooking well is mostly a matter of getting a little confidence and that really just comes from practice and from being willing to try new things.
One of the biggest compliments I ever received was when one of the camera men on the set said he'd gone home to cook one of my dishes. That made me feel really good (almost as good as when I received the first IACP Cooking Teacher Award of Excellence).
One of my students told me recently that what makes my classes different is that I "teach more than just how to cook a particular recipe." I can't imagine how you’d do it differently. Any dish, whether it originated hundreds of years ago or is something you just put together, has a story and so many interesting elements. It's part of what fascinates me as cook; you know, not just the technical side of cooking, but also where ingredients and recipes come from; how geography and political history influence cooking; and the whole folk history that attaches to recipes passed down from generation to generation.
One of the best parts of my work is that I get to travel to cities all over the world. Many of my classes are in the United States (maybe I've been to your city!), but a lot are in Europe, Australia and even New Zealand.
I also take groups of students on special culinary trips to the Wine Country in California, and also to Italy and France, for total-immersion experiences of the regional food and wine. We stay in beautiful surroundings -- estates, villas and inns -- and I teach lots of hands-on cooking classes and we visit local wineries, rice mills, outdoor markets, and restaurants. I love these trips and getting to share with my students my love of these areas and their cuisine.
How I Learned to Cook
As for my own culinary education, I underwent my classical training and apprenticeship with Madeleine Kamman in New England and France. After I received my Master Chef Diploma, I worked for five years at Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California restaurant that was founded by Alice Waters and is known all over the world for its commitment to locally-grown and seasonal ingredients. Both these associations, with Madeleine and Alice, changed my life and have opened doors for me wherever I travel.
But my real education began at my parent's table and at my grandparents' farm. I grew up in a New England family that revered mealtime. Every night we'd sit around the table and eat this incredible food my Mother would make and we'd tell stories and talk about each other's day. On weekends, we'd go to my grandparents and pick apples off the trees or corn from the pasture. One of my favorite memories is sitting under a maple tree eating a picnic lunch that was made entirely of things that were grown, raised or made from scratch on the farm, including the best part: ice cream flavored with maple from that very tree!
The First Thing I Ever Cooked
I am actually the latest in four generations of cooks, descending from my Great Grandmother who owned a Boston tea room called the Pilgrim's Kitchen. My Grandfather operated a large Victorian dairy farm known to insiders (those lucky enough to come and stay there and taste his cooking) as "The Homestead." My Mother, who has always maintained a vast garden from which she makes incredible meals (I will never forget the time she made me my first tomato sandwich with sun-warm tomatoes, homemade mayonnaise and bread), is also a professional cook.
My own first experience with actually cooking something was when I talked my Mom into letting me make some oatmeal cookies. I followed the recipe very carefully, measuring exactly as she had taught me. I spooned the batter onto the cookie sheet and put the first batch in the oven. While they cooked, I called out to my Mom that we would need to get more baking soda as I'd used it all up.
"That's funny," she said. "I just bought a brand-new box." She came into the kitchen, looked at me, and then we both looked in the oven. Therein was the biggest cookie you can imagine, a real record-breaker, creeping down the edges of the baking sheet and onto the oven floor. I'd used 1 1/2 cups of baking soda, instead of 1 1/2 teaspoons. But the part I remember best was that when we took it out of the oven and cautiously tasted it, my Mom said, "You know, they're still good!"
My serious cooking began when I was in college finishing up my Fine Arts Degree in Art Education at the University of Massachusetts. There was this restaurant in Boston, called the Middle East, and I used to go there and eat their falafel. I loved the flavors and the feeling that the food evoked. This was my first introduction to the food of the Mediterranean and I found in it many of the ingredients that became the focus of my interest in cooking: bright, flavorful, simple food and a tradition of sharing food at the table with others.
My Style of Cooking
My style of cooking is actually really simple. I try not to fuss with food too much. I like dishes that are approachable. I focus my attention on selecting ingredients that are in season and letting their flavors speak for themselves. I think I took what I learned at Chez Panisse about simple food and made it bright, colorful and fresh through texture and color. My background in art really helped with that. I really believe that food has to taste good, look good and be simple.
When I wrote my first book, "From Tapas to Meze," I tried to incorporate all these ideas. The same with my two books about wine country cooking and my latest "Weir Cooking in the City," the companion book to the new series. (I love that "O, The Oprah Magazine" said this new cookbook "brims with dishes that are sexy and sophisticated yet simple.")
These ideas about seasonality and simple food are also in the four-part series Seasonal Celebrations that I wrote for Williams-Sonoma and in my articles for Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Cooking Light, and Fine Cooking. The same is true of my personal appearances and the speeches I make to different organizations, like the American Dietetic Association and several private charitable groups.
I am a member of:
The International Association of Culinary Professionals
The American Institute of Wine and Food
Women Chefs and Restaurateurs
The James Beard Foundation
The San Francisco Professional Food Society