Richard Olney was an American living in France whose cookbooks, notably 1970’s “The French Menu Cookbook” and 1974’s “Simple French Food,” would inspire the birth of what is now called California cuisine, and focus greater attention on the interplay of wine and food.
Olney’s work as chief consultant for “The Good Cook,” a Time-Life cookbook series, exposed countless cooks, both amateur and professional, to his cooking concepts in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“First of all, he was an artist. That’s an important thing to note,” says Joyce Goldstein, a San Francisco restaurateur and author of “Inside the California Food Revolution” with Dore Brown. “People who work in the visual arts are also attuned to the beauty of ingredients. He put flavors together beautifully. His plates didn’t have 25 ingredients, they had five, and they were all there for a reason. … That doesn’t mean he wasn’t sophisticated.”
“I thought he was an extraordinary cook,” noted Jacques Pepin, the Madison, Conn.-based chef, cookbook author and television cooking show host. “He was certainly more French than I am in his research and the work he did.”
“Richard was a true purist,” recalled Alice Waters, chef/owner of Chez Panisse, the iconic restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., in an email. “He would go miles for a loaf of real bread! If he was in Provence, he would use the ingredients right from his garden. If he was in Paris in the winter, he would go to the market first before starting to cook. The oysters had to be right out of the water!
“He taught me about seasonality, and about having a sense of time and place when I cooked,” she added. “He taught how to respect the ingredients and the aliveness of them — that before you cooked, you first had to go to this farm or to that ranch, and find what was ripe and delicious.”
Waters, in her introduction to “Reflexions,” Olney’s posthumously published autobiography, credited his writing for giving “validation” and “courage” at a crucial time early in Chez Panisse’s gestation.
Born in Marathon, Iowa, Olney moved to Paris in 1951 to be a painter before moving to cooking and writing. He died in 1999 at his house in the town of Sollies-Toucas in Provence. He was 71.
In an obituary, the Chicago Tribune’s William Rice wrote that Olney “had an unparalleled view of French food and wine” over those decades. “No other American was on such intimate terms with the nobility of French gastronomy,” Rice wrote.
Olney had firm opinions about food and wine, cooking and celebrity. How one responded probably depended, as those things do, on whether one was in agreement with him or not.
“I think he enjoyed being difficult,” Julia Child told R.W. Apple Jr. for his obituary of Olney in The New York Times. “But on the other hand, he could be absolutely charming if you treated him like the genius he considered himself to be.”
Goldstein also spoke of his charm but remembered his insistence that a “perfectly cellared” bottle of red wine be put in ice at her Square One restaurant.
“Olney was not a nice man. He was a cranky guy and opinionated,” she said. Yet Goldstein is quick to acknowledge how Olney’s influence continues to make itself felt.
“When I was interviewing chefs for the book on California cuisine, nearly everyone said (‘The Good Cook’) changed their lives,” she said. “You can still cook from Richard Olney’s books, and they work and you’ll have fun.”
Chicken Breasts and Zucchini with Marjoram
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 8 minutes
Makes: 2 to 3 servings
This recipe comes from the 40th anniversary edition of Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food,” published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
1 lb. zucchini, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh flowers and leaves of marjoram (substitute 1/2 teaspoon finely crumbled dry, if necessary, or switch to fresh tarragon)
2 large chicken breast halves, skin, bones and fat removed, cut into 1/2-by-2-inch strips
1/2 cup heavy cream
In a large heavy skillet, toss the zucchini, seasoned, in 1 tablespoon butter over a high flame for about 6 minutes — until barely tender and hardly colored. Toss in the marjoram and put aside. In the same pan, with the other tablespoon of butter, over a high flame, toss the seasoned breast strips for no more than 3 minutes. They may stick at first; gently displace with a wooden spoon. As soon as they become firm and rubbery, return the zucchini to the pan, toss the two well together, add the cream, swirl, and toss. It is ready when the cream reaches a boil. Accompany by a pilaf.
Nutrition information per serving (for 3 servings): 328 calories, 25 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 124 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 450 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com