Tucked away in a tiny bistro decorated with vintage frames hanging on the beautifully papered walls, I sat down on a recycled church pew alongside Laura Calder. While she sipped on a glass of red wine, I recited questions from my Mac laptop to interview her for Chloe Magazine. That Thursday afternoon I unraveled there’s much more to this woman than being a successful author and talented chef on Food Network Canada.
“I’m sick of my nomadic vagabond lifestyle,” Calder said. “I’m dying to find a home and make it home.”
Her little red suitcase on wheels hasn’t stopped rolling for some time now. She has accumulated an endless amount of stamps on her passport and as a result lost count of the countries she has totaled over the years. Having lived abroad, traveled throughout Canada for work and visited many countries in between, she feels ready to settle and finally call somewhere home.
Calder is now filming a new television series, Recipe for Riches, where she judges contestants in search of the best recipe across Canada. The show is somewhat of a culinary Canadian Idol and she is definitely not the Simon Cowell, claiming she finds it hard to criticize the efforts of others. She is also working on ideas for her next television series after wrapping up French Food at Home on Food Network. Despite her roots and work currently in Canada, there’s still an evident Parisian spirit that has been deeply embedded in her by living in Paris and Burgundy for many years.
She shops for food every day and she cooks dinner every night. She’s not too keen on this technologically advanced world, which could be the reason she doesn’t even own an iPod. Instead she scribbles in the diary she won’t leave home without and believes she should have been born in another era with a list of role models including Madame de Stael, Isabella Bird and Winston Churchill. Walking and yoga are also important parts of her daily routine as she says the two-hour strolls are required more for her head than her body.
She moved to the City of Light soon after finishing culinary school in Vancouver and working for a wine expert in Napa, California. It was Anne Willan, whom she met at a food writer’s conference who hired her to move to France to help her write a cookbook and run a cooking school. She went on a seven-month contract and ended up staying a decade. Slipping into the French culture was easy as pie and it wasn’t long before her own articles were published in Vogue Entertaining and Travel, Gourmet magazine, Gastronomica, Salon.com, the Times of London, the Los Angeles Times, the Wine Journal, and Flare magazine. She also wrote two cookbooks in France, French Food at Home (Harper Collins 2003) and French Taste (HarperCollins 2009).
“To me, the most important thing to take away from the French when it comes to food (if not everything else) is their passion for pleasure,” Calder said in the latter. “Putting pleasure first means that we shop better, we cook better, we eat better, and, by extension, we live and love better.“
Calder’s third and favourite book is titled Dinner Chez Moi: The Fine Art of Feeding Friends and due on shelves this fall. It includes personal touches and the pages are filled with her sketches of adorable stick women accompanied by cheeky sayings. Ironically, the entire time she was writing this book she admits to never having a “chez moi”, which translates, more or less, to “home”.
She has based herself in Toronto for the past two years, but spent much of that time elsewhere. As a way of feeling grounded, she filled the cookbook with recipes and the stories behind them from friends. This is one of the best features of the book because she says every time she opens it up, she feels like she’s walked into a room full of friends.
“I’m not interested in knowing the name of every hot pepper or every cuisine on earth. For me, food is a way of telling stories and understanding people,” she said. “Food is my camera lens and that’s how I look at the world – through these food colored lenses.”
Food has always been a creative outlet for Calder. She remembers her mother hoisting her up onto the kitchen counter at age two. While her two brothers were outside playing in the New Brunswick countryside where she was raised, food became her toy. She was destined for greatness when her chocolate cake with peanut butter icing won first place at a fair. She received a coke can radio, a bag of chips and the confidence to soon start cooking lavish multi –course meals for family dinners. Dinner parties have been her chief passion every since. “Wherever I am, you can be sure of one thing: there will dinner parties happening constantly.”
Another passion has always been languages. “I must have an obsession with the mouth,” she laughs. “What goes into it and what comes out of it.”
Fascinated by sounds, accents, listening and learning languages she was enrolled in a French school program from age 12 and later earned a degree in linguistics from Toronto. All through University she used to distract herself with cooking, but it wasn’t until completing a year in the UK for a masters program in Social Psychology, that she finally traded in her textbooks for cookbooks and realized the culinary world was where she belonged.
Although food is her work now, languages still seem to intertwine themselves in Calder’s life. In her twenties, Calder packed herself off to Munich and spent a year studying German. She later studied Spanish in Spain, but gave it up in favour of Italian. It was during her time in France when her days revolved around learning and loving French food, that Italian caught her attention. Whenever there was a lull in work, she’d book a language course in Italy and take off to Bologna, Rome, Venice, Reggio Emilia… whatever place seemed to call. And, of course, whenever she wasn’t in language class she was exploring Italian food.
With all these phenomenal achievements including published articles and books, academic and culinary degrees and two televisions series, it’s not the work-related accomplishments that she finds most fulfilling. Rather she takes pride and lists one of her greatest accomplishments as her devotion to friendships.
I asked Calder what her ideal meal would be if someone were to tell her that day she would be eating for the last time. With an extensive background in culinary arts and an experienced palate for high quality ingredients and gourmet dishes, I was intrigued as to how a successful chef would answer. Perhaps she would opt for a simple steak grilled to perfection or the most decadent of desserts? She may have even considered traveling abroad to dine in one of the many restaurants Europe has to offer?
Instead she looked at me without hesitation and explained it had nothing to do with food or location. What mattered most was who was there as opposed to what was being prepared or served. She finds pleasure in being surrounded by those she loves most. She would ask each person to bring his or her favourite dish so she could take a little bite of everything as a potluck goodbye.
Calder’s own recipe for life seems simple. Mix beauty and brains and add a dash of old world elegance and a pinch of spontaneity. Always make sure to pay close attention to true friendships and add a fluency in a foreign tongue as the secret ingredient. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during our lovely afternoon chat, it’s to remember that there’s so much more to a culinary experience than just the food.
“Food is only a way of saying something else. I’m sure someone in fashion could say those things using fashion. Food is incidental almost,” she said. “It looks like I’m in food, and I suppose at am, but at another level not really. I’m more in the business of trying to make everyday life a little better.”