THE One AND Ol­ney

At the dawn of Amer­ica’s culi­nary awakening, an Iowa-born ex­pat named Richard Ol­ney taught to­day’s tastemak­ers the en­dur­ing French lessons of be­ing “at ta­ble.”

Food & Wine - - THE ODE - by HUNTER LEWIS FOOD PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY CHRISTO­PHER HIRSHEIMER

I like an at­mos­phere in which, when­ever one sits down to a meal, how­ever sim­ple, it is con­ceived as an aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence in which wine al­ways has its place; I like to be able to fur­nish my cel­lar with wines that are de­liv­ered to me di­rectly from the vine­yards at which I have first tasted them. More specif­i­cally, I love the hill­side on which I live, the fire­place in which I cook, the grape-ar­bored ter­race on which I eat for half the year, the qual­ity of the Provençal light, the wild herb scents which per­me­ate the air, and the pres­ence of olive trees in the land­scape. —Richard Ol­ney

FRANK STITT IS STAND­ING OVER A FARM SINK in the kitchen of his Birm­ing­ham home peel­ing ten­der red pota­toes with a par­ing knife. He’s the pro­pri­etor of four restau­rants in the city, in­clud­ing the ac­claimed High­lands Bar & Grill, but tonight the chef is cooking at home, sip­ping a glass of Do­maine Le­flaive Mâ­con-Verzé and talking to me about the in­fi­nite va­ri­ety of com­posed sal­ads. This late sum­mer salad, for ex­am­ple, in­cludes quar­tered hard-cooked eggs, left­over lamb, and six veg­eta­bles from Par­adise Farm, his prop­erty out­side of town. To make the vinai­grette, what he calls “one of the great­est of all sauces,” he driz­zles not one but three vine­gars—red wine, sherry, and honey vine­gar—into a bowl with shal­lots, gar­lic, and thyme, adding deeper fla­vor and a more acidic balance be­fore whisk­ing in ex­tra-virgin olive oil.

Then he remembers the gratin. Us­ing a kitchen towel, he pulls the oval casse­role out of the oven and brings it up to his nose to in­hale the smell of bub­bling toma­toes, gar­lic, and eg­g­plant. All have melted, giv­ing their juices to a ruddy pool at the bot­tom of the ce­ramic dish. Stitt ex­hales, “Oh, Lordy. Whooooo.”

We take the gratin and salad out­side to a wooden ta­ble un­der an ar­bor. Around us, the smell of rose­mary hangs heavy in the hu­mid­ity. Pardis, Stitt’s gra­cious and el­e­gant wife and busi­ness part­ner, joins us. She kids her hus­band about how un­com­posed his com­posed salad looks. Stitt takes it in stride. He knows the feel­ing counts more than the pre­sen­ta­tion and pours us all glasses of Fleurie Pon­cié as the con­ver­sa­tion shifts to the night’s din­ner ser­vice at Bot­tega, their Ital­ian restau­rant.

In the six years that I have known him, I have of­ten heard Stitt break into rever­ies about be­ing “at ta­ble.” It’s an idea cen­tral to how he sees his work as a chef and restau­ra­teur. As the evening gen­tly un­spools, I re­al­ize that this night is what he means: good food and wine that speak for them­selves, con­ver­sa­tion, and a lit­tle bit of beauty. It’s an aes­thetic that the Stitts evoke nightly at their restau­rants. And while for a guest that mood might seem like magic, in fact, Stitt tells me, you can trace it di­rectly back to 1978 in Provence, to a month Stitt spent work­ing for the late writer Richard Ol­ney.

IN THE MID-1970S, Stitt was a phi­los­o­phy ma­jor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, con­cerned with aes­thet­ics, the cre­ation of beauty, and the pur­suit of au­then­tic­ity. Where he found all that, though, was in kitchen work at Chez Panisse with Alice Wa­ters. There, he traded Hei­deg­ger and Ni­et­zsche for the sen­sual in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism of food writ­ers El­iz­a­beth David and, par­tic­u­larly, Ol­ney.

What struck Stitt about Chez Panisse was its pur­suit of Provençal food as “a medium to make art, to make beauty.” Ol­ney’s The French Menu Cook­book was a touch­stone for Wa­ters, who had come to call Ol­ney a men­tor and friend. The phi­los­o­phy at Chez Panisse was a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from what was hap­pen­ing in other Amer­i­can cities, and Stitt wanted to go to the source of it, to meet Ol­ney him­self. So Wa­ters helped bro­ker a meeting.

Stitt met the 51-year-old Ol­ney in the spring of 1978 in the Time-Life stu­dios on Con­duit Street in Lon­don, where Ol­ney was pro­duc­ing The Good Cook, a ground­break­ing se­ries of 28 in­struc­tional cook­books. Chef Jeremiah Tower was there, too. A few years prior, Tower had joined Ol­ney in France on a jaunt from Paris to Provence to cook, eat, and visit winer­ies like Do­maine Tem­pier. The two be­came lovers. Now he was back in Europe to help Ol­ney shoul­der the nightly, Cham­pagne-fueled re­search and daily cooking load re­quired to cre­ate the many step-by-step pho­tographs that ac­com­pa­nied ev­ery recipe. The sched­ule was de­mand­ing—Ol­ney had to deliver a book man­u­script ev­ery few months. He needed an as­sis­tant.

A cou­ple of months later, Stitt re­ported for duty in Sol­liès-Tou­cas, a small town in Provence north­east of Toulon. He car­ried a gift of fresh morels for his new boss up a path to Ol­ney’s rus­tic cot­tage on seven hilly, arid acres. “I was go­ing to the mountain to sit with Bud­dha,” Stitt says. “That month was one of the great­est high­lights of my life.”

Ol­ney was born in Marathon, Iowa, and had trained at the Brook­lyn Mu­seum Art School, wait­ing ta­bles in Green­wich Vil­lage be­fore mov­ing to Paris in 1951 at the age of 24 to be­come a painter. He rolled with a bo­hemian set of artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als, in­clud­ing the writer James Bald­win. But it was his pot-au-feu, not his por­traits of peo­ple like Bald­win, that launched his ca­reer as a food and wine sa­vant. Ma­jor winer­ies be­gan invit­ing him to taste new vin­tages, and he cob­bled to­gether enough money to eat well and re­fine his palate. He built trust among French read­ers, in­clud­ing Miche­lin-starred chefs, with his col­umns in Cui­sine et Vins de France. In 1961, he be­gan split­ting his time be­tween the sub­ur­ban clamor of Cla­mart and the open skies of Provence. He re­built a ru­ined shep­herd’s cot­tage in Sol­liès-Tou­cas, dig­ging a wine cel­lar and damming a rock trough on the hill­side above the house to fash­ion a swim­ming pool. Be­fore the ad­vance from

The French Menu Cook­book paid for a proper La Cor­nue stove, Ol­ney and his broth­ers By­ron and James built the great stone hearth in the kitchen to grill kid­neys or slowroast lamb while it ro­tated on a string tied to a nail above.

In May 1978, at the sun-bleached cot­tage over­look­ing the Ga­peau river valley, writer and ap­pren­tice fell into a rhythm. Break­fast was fresh orange juice, toasted sour­dough bread, but­ter from Nor­mandy, mar­malade, and bowls of café au lait. The clack of a type­writer broke the morn­ing si­lence as Ol­ney cor­re­sponded with Time-Life ed­i­tors back in Lon­don while Stitt washed dishes from the night be­fore in the shal­low stone sink. Lunch might be a sim­ple com­posed salad with spe­cial at­ten­tion paid to how gen­tly the eggs were cooked and the beans boiled and dressed.

In Ol­ney’s com­pany, the lyri­cal, fas­tid­i­ous lessons from

The French Menu Cook­book came to life for Stitt daily, along with the more re­laxed, earthy fla­vors from Ol­ney’s

Sim­ple French Food. One day, Ol­ney re­moved the back­bone from a chicken and stuffed an em­bar­rass­ment of zuc­chini and farmer’s cheese un­der the skin (recipe p. 99). He show­ered it with salt and crum­bled dried herbs like mar­jo­ram, thyme, and sa­vory from the ter­raced gar­den that Stitt was re­spon­si­ble for weed­ing. Ol­ney didn’t drive, so Stitt took him into town to see the Mout­ton sis­ters, the lo­cal butch­ers. “They cack­led at Richard, his au­da­cious­ness of try­ing to debone the ox­tail” for one of the vol­umes of The Good Cook, Stitt says. But Ol­ney was up to the task, Stitt remembers: “He held the knife like a very con­fi­dent butcher, like a sur­geon.”

It was at din­ner that the main lessons took place. A pil­grim­age to Ol­ney’s meant four sim­ple cour­ses matched with a pro­gres­sion of wines of grow­ing in­ten­sity. And Scotch. Tower re­calls sit­ting un­der the ar­bor at 2 a.m. drink­ing Laphroaig and lis­ten­ing to an old por­ta­ble phono­graph: “Richard was say­ing, ‘Isn’t that just so sweet,’ while I was fall­ing un­der the ta­ble.”

Wa­ters cred­its Ol­ney with in­spir­ing her restau­rant’s ob­ses­sion with sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents and set menus. Dur­ing spring, Ol­ney would present his guests a first course of fat, warm, per­fectly ten­der as­para­gus spears in a linen towel and teach them to roll the spears on a plate pool­ing with home­made red wine vine­gar, grassy green Provençal olive oil, and sea salt. “He taught us the way that cooking and serv­ing and sit­ting at ta­ble go to­gether,” Wa­ters says.

At his ta­ble in Sol­liès-Tou­cas, Ol­ney con­jured a whole vi­sion of how one might live a beau­ti­ful life, with food and drink at the cen­ter. Tower remembers Ol­ney in his gar­den, shirt­less and smok­ing Gauloises while clip­ping roses. A bot­tle of Krug sat chill­ing in a bucket on the ta­ble. “That was Richard,” Tower says, laugh­ing.

AF­TER STITT LEFT PROVENCE, he trav­eled across Europe chas­ing the magic of be­ing at ta­ble. He har­vested grapes and made wine, and even­tu­ally he came home to Alabama, where he opened High­lands in 1982. This past spring, al­most 40 years to the day he walked up the path to Ol­ney’s house, and 19 years af­ter Ol­ney died at his home in Sol­liès-Tou­cas, Stitt walked on­stage to ac­cept the James Beard Foun­da­tion Award for Out­stand­ing Restau­rant for High­lands. (Dolester Miles, who has worked with Stitt for more than 30 years, won Out­stand­ing Pas­try Chef.)

Stitt’s jour­ney par­al­lels that of Amer­i­can cui­sine, an awakening that started in earnest four decades ago as the coun­try slowly emerged from a post-war fog of con­ve­nience food and buf­fets of prime rib and ba­nanas Foster. Ol­ney had a pro­found, last­ing in­flu­ence on the van­guard of chefs who would change the way we eat and drink. He’s one vi­tal root of the culi­nary fam­ily tree that ex­tends up­ward to Chez Panisse, to Wa­ters, and to the chefs who came through her Cal­i­for­nia kitchen: Mark Miller, Jonathan Wax­man, Suzanne Goin, and more—in­clud­ing Tower, who went on to open the glit­ter­ing Stars in San Fran­cisco in 1984. Thanks to Ol­ney’s lessons at his ta­ble and in 34 cook­books, you will find strains of his gen­er­ous legacy—sea­sonal menus, good food made with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents, and prop­erly paired wines—in nearly ev­ery city in Amer­ica.

One such city is Birm­ing­ham, where a framed photo of Richard Ol­ney hangs on the wall of Chez Fon­fon, Stitt’s bistro. Blink and you’ll miss it, but Ol­ney’s val­ues and the magic and beauty of be­ing at ta­ble en­dure.

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