So you know how those of us in the Bay Area who are food focused can think where we live is a bit all that? Smug, as we can be, with our local, organic, sustainable this and our foraged, hand-crafted that.
Sometimes it takes an ex-pat to make you wake up and smell the fair trade, third-wave coffee.
That's how I felt last week when I met vegetarian cooking instructor Theresa Murphy, who has called Paris home for some 15 years. Murphy has firm opinions about food and she's not afraid to share them. She brings her own salt, cheese, and wine when traveling Stateside and scoffs at the bread on offer in the Bay Area.
It's almost impossible to buy decent baguette here, she says. Acme baguette, beloved by locals, is all wrong in terms of taste, texture, and air as far as Murphy is concerned. She maintains that Cheeseboard's long loaf comes closest to a true Parisian baguette and she likes the brick-oven loaves baked at Oakland's Firebrand.
While good cheeses can be found in the Bay Area they're outrageously expensive, says Murphy, ditto natural wines, though at a pinch she picks up bottles at Terroir when she's in town. She disdains California wines which she believes don't pair well with food, especially vegetables.
None of these pronouncements makes Murphy, 58, a self-taught chef, any less likable. It seems all so refreshingly, well, French or something, even if Murphy hales from Southern California and calls rustic Italian fare her cuisine of choice. The culinary guide behind La Cucina Di Terresa, Murphy runs plant-based cooking classes out of her tiny apartment kitchen in the 11th arrondissement in Paris.
For the second year in a row, Murphy offered a series of "cooking food from the soil" classes in the homes of friends in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, which I first heard about, as you do, from a mom of a boy on my son's baseball team. Vicky raved about the class she took with Theresa in Paris, urged me to sign up quickly for her first Bay Area tour last year, but I was too late to land a seat at the table. (You'll find endorsements for her Parisian culinary classes here.)
This year I was determined to check out Murphy's classes, which promised a celebration of seasonal, sustainable, organic vegetables cooked simply. Sounds just my sort of savory fare.
Murphy has an eclectic background. In the U.S. she worked in the front-of-the-house restaurant dining scene in San Francisco, including stints at La Mediterranee, Carta, Flying Saucer, South Park Cafe, and Bistro Clovis. In France she started out busking in Parisian eateries, served as a translator on films and books, and pursued photography.
Food has always been a focus in her life, though not always a healthy one. She struggled with both anorexia and bulimia as a young woman and says she broke herself of the compulsive behavior by filling the house with food one day, smearing it all over the walls, and screaming like a banshee. When she made the move to France, her love affair with food began in earnest.
Dishes pictured: Red Quinoa Salad with Watermelon Radish, Potato Gnocchi with Wilted Spring Greens
As my luck would have it, I am unable to report back on Murphy's abilities as an instructor, since the class started at 5 and I didn't arrive until 9:30, thinking all that would be left to do was apologize for my tardiness and offer to wash dishes. (I was delayed by a deadline, a meeting, a front porch light that caught on fire--don't ask--and heavy traffic on Geary Boulevard, filled with St. Patrick's Day revelers.) But the Richmond District house was abuzz with activity when I arrived and guests were leisurely getting ready to cook the main dish.
It's a well-known hazard of working in food (whether in the kitchen making it or at the desk writing about it) that you're often starving for something to eat, too busy on your craft to take the time to actually feed yourself. That's how I felt, ringing the door bell Thursday night. I was parched, hungry, and hankering for a home-cooked meal.
And that's exactly what I got. Can I tell you just how wonderful it is to be warmly greeted into a stranger's home and offered, wine, water, and appetizers after you've worked a 12-hour day with little sustenance? The other guests, which included two Robs -- filmmaker Epstein and chef Zaborny of Hayes Street Grill -- were calm, kind, and caring and I found myself happily sitting down to a meal that I'd had absolutely nothing to do with preparing.
So, readers, it would be wrong of me to recommend Murphy's cooking class, since I essentially missed all the instruction involved. But what I can tell you: That meal was a satisfying end to an otherwise frenzied day.
I sampled French goat cheese on a rustic loaf and farinata, a chickpea flour-based flat bread studded with coins of purple carrots. Red quinoa salad with mandolin-thin watermelon radish slices, wild fennel, and a tangy dressing followed. Then it was on to wilted spring greens (lots of dandelion and some chard in the mix too) with impressively turned out potato gnocchi, which were pleasingly soft. Not as melt-in-your-mouth as the ricotta gnocchi from Zuni Cafe that I've never been able to replicate, but we're talking darn good, fluffy gnocchi, bathed in olive oil and butter, sprinkled with hazelnuts and parmesan, the slightly bitter greens proving the perfect counterpoint to the creamy potato pillows.
Dessert followed, an almond-meal crumble (crunch the cooking crew called it) that worked when generously doused in an almond and pistachio milk cream with lemon zest. It was not the billed Meyer lemon tart with roasted pumpkin seeds and meringue, but honestly, I wasn't about to quibble when I was being so well fed and I hadn't lifted a finger to help get dinner ready.
Supper was served at a handsomely set table for ten at host Lisa Baker's house, where the wine and conversation did indeed flow and the accents (French, Italian, American, and Australian) just added to the ambiance. What could be better than sharing a simple meal made of top-notch ingredients with a group of people united around the pleasures of home cooking?