Melissa Clark: “France Is Where I Learned How to Cook”

Melissa Clark was celebrating the release of her latest book, Dinner in French, when lockdown began in New York City. Since then, the New York Times food writer and author of 43 cookbooks (including one written with French chef Daniel Boulud) has spread her love of French cuisine through online cooking demos, live videos on Instagram, and simple recipes tailored for confined Francophiles with limited access to a grocery store.
© Stephanie Stanley

France-Amérique: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your daily life?

Melissa Clark: My book tour being canceled was a disappointment. I was looking forward to going around the country and meeting people. Luckily, I still have online cooking demos! I will do one with the French-American Foundation on May 14. It will be later in the spring, so I’m hoping I will be able to find asparagus and make an asparagus, goat cheese, and tarragon tart. I recently did a demo where I made rose marzipan, so that’s another possibility. But finding the ingredients that I need has become harder.

What are your cooking essentials?

I usually buy ingredients in bulk. I have lots of pasta and canned tomatoes, I have anchovies, sardines, a lot of onions and shallots and garlic, and lemons last a long time. But I am always running out of butter, berries, fresh fruits, and vegetables. That’s what sends me to the grocery store! I also try to buy groceries online, but the delivery services are busy and the spots are hard to find…

Your latest cookbook, Dinner in French, is dedicated to your parents, “for making France such a vital part of [your] life.”

My parents fell in love with France before I was born. They were psychiatrists and it was common for psychiatrists in America to take the whole month of August off. Before Airbnb and the Internet, my parents would house-exchange with people in France. A big catalogue came out every January and everybody who wanted to have an exchange would list their house. My parents would go through the book and look for houses in France, especially in Provence. We would write letters, send them out, and weeks later we would get the replies and arrange an exchange. It was a great way for us to travel and to see the country.

How did these holidays in France influence you?

France is where I learned how to cook. In Brooklyn, where I grew up, my parents didn’t have a lot of time to cook. But on vacation, we did what everybody does in France: We went to the market and we cooked together. My parents learned to cook with Julia Child – they watched her show on TV and cooked through her books! – and I was brought up shopping for local, seasonal ingredients before it became a thing in the United States. I remember eating fromage blanc with sugar and raspberries. I loved the texture of the sugar and the taste of the cheese, fresh and sour. It was so simple.

Comté cocktail crackers, roasted beet salad, chicken tagine with blood orange… The recipes in your book seem closer to what the French would eat at home than what they would eat at a gourmet restaurant. How did you choose them?

I always say that French people have to make dinner every night, too! We all want delicious food, but we also want it quicker. I try to streamline French cooking. To give you an example, I learned how to make a sheet pan ratatouille from a Parisian woman. She didn’t look to stand in front of the stove and used the oven instead to save time. She was a French person taking a traditional French dish and making it easier. I took her idea and put a chicken on top of the vegetables! I am from Brooklyn and I wanted to make the dish even easier by turning it into an entire meal. This recipe sums up what I’m trying to do in the book: I take the flavors and the traditions of France, make them a little bit easier, and add a Brooklyn twist.

What advice would you give our readers who are trying to renew what they are currently eating?

If there’s a dish you’ve always wanted to make, now is the time! You’re not cooking for guests, it’s just for you and your family. But the hard thing right now is finding the ingredients. Don’t get stuck on what you can’t find and rejoice in what you can find. Try to be flexible. There’s always something you can cook. If you have a few ingredients and the internet, you’ll find something!


Dinner in French by Melissa Clark, Clarkson Potter, 2020. 336 pages, 37.50 dollars.