Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Joanne Weir-Cook, Eat, Travel
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Joanne Weir has been to Sun Valley a few times. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. I have friends with homes there, and I’m happy that they have invited me to be at their home.”
 
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Joanne Weir was 5 when her mother plucked a big juicy beefsteak tomato out of the family garden and sliced it, threading it between two slices of homemade bread that she had toasted and spread with homemade mayonnaise.

And, as Joanne bit into it, her fate was sealed.

From that moment, Weir would be beholden to pursuing the most amazing taste sensations she could find and introducing them to thousands of people around the world through cookbooks, TV shows, an award-winning restaurant and award-winning international culinary tours.

 
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Joanne Weir has a passion for teaching people how to enjoy food.
 

“My mother told me that day to sprinkle a little salt on tomatoes whenever you’re working with them to bring out the sweetness and the acidity,” she recounted. “Now, this little 5-year-old kid was like, ‘What is she talking about?!’

“But everytime I slice a tomato to this day I think about my mother. I wrote a book ‘You Say Tomato,’ and I dedicated it to my mother for teaching me to make the perfect tomato sandwich that she’d cut in two triangles, leaving me thinking it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.”

Weir, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and chef, is in Sun Valley this week to present a lecture titled “Plates, Places and Stories from my Family Kitchen” as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ BIG IDEA project.

The lecture is sold out. But there are a few places for a dinner she is cooking on Friday, Feb. 22, at the former Zinc Restaurant. There are also spots for a cooking demonstration and light lunch on Saturday, Feb. 23, at a private home.

Talking about memories associated with food comes easy to Weir. She’s a fourth-generation professional chef, her great-grandmother having owned the Pilgrim’s Pantry restaurant in Boston which plied New Englanders with corn fritters, fried oysters and what was reputed to be “the most delicious homemade bread and rolls.”

Joanne’s mother grew up in a beautiful 20-room Victorian house on a 450-acre dairy farm in Massachusetts Berkshires where New Yorkers would come to escape their sweltering summers.  There, Joanne’s grandfather would serve them three meals a day utilizing fresh eggs and milk from his chickens and the hundreds of cows that he and his farmhands milked each day.

“If he didn’t raise and grow the food himself, he would trade for it. I honestly think my grandparents were the first farm-to-table people,” Weir said.

Weir said she visited her grandfather’s farm as a youngster, enjoying beautiful picnic lunches that he’d make.

“He’d  butcher a chicken and make homemade mayonnaise for chicken salad that he’d put on homemade rolls. And he’d make homemade potato chips and we would sit underneath the maple tree and for dessert he’d make maple walnut ice cream with maple syrup that he had harvested. I grew up thinking every kid had that kind of food,” she said.

Weir’s mother, too, was a professional chef who encouraged her daughter’s love of cooking. Weir recalls making oatmeal cookies when she was 8 and running out of baking soda, even though, her mother noted, she’d just bought a new box.

“The cookie dough spread out over the baking sheeting and went off the sheet onto the floor of the oven. And it was one big huge cookie because I had added a cup and a half of baking soda instead of a teaspoon and a half,” she recalled.

“What I learned from my mother in that moment was love because she tasted that horrible cookie and said it still tasted good. It wasn’t true, but she didn’t want to discourage me from loving to be in the kitchen. So, I think my mother for that.”

Weir worked for five years under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

“I learned to buy the best ingredients that you can—get freshly grated cheese and shop at the farmers’ markets because the best ingredients make the best food. And I like to buy organic because of the many years I spent as a cook at Panisse,” she said.

Weir’s first cookbook, “From Tapas to Meze,” published in 1994, was nominated for a James Beard Award and selected by Julia Child as one of her 12 personal favorites out of a thousand cookbooks published that year. Since, she has written dozens of others, including 16 on Mediterranean cooking and her latest—a food memoir titled “Kitchen Gypsy, Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food.”

Her award-winning PBS series “Joanne Weir Gets Fresh” began airing on PBS in January 2015. And her newest 26-part cooking show, “Joanne Weir’s PLATES & PLACES,” premiered nationally in February 2018.

But it’s the week-long culinary tours that she stages in Morocco, Spain, Italy, France and Greece that excites her most.

She’s taken people to see how people rub and roll together large grains of hard wheat into couscous.

And she’s taken them to gardens in the south of France to watch harvesters remove saffron threads from tiny saffron crocus flowers with tools resembling tweezers.

“Everyone is shocked to see how much work it is to harvest the saffron--they understand then why it’s the most expensive spice in the world,” she said. “I decided I was going to try to do it at home. I probably got about 10 threads of saffron--not even enough to do something with it. So, I decided maybe I’d just buy my saffron from now on.”

Given her passion for teaching others, Weir conducts hands-on cooking classes in her kitchen-studio in San Francisco. And, when she does, she asks how many would like to stay in a villa and cook for a week and go on excursions to see how cheese is made and drink wine together.

“And everybody’s hand goes up—it’s everybody’s dream,” she said. “I have a beautiful, beautiful 16th century villa in Tuscany in the town of Lucca, which famous for its olive oil. This villa has fresco paintings on the ceiling, and a pizza oven where we can make pizzas. And the last night I surprised everybody and brought in an opera singer--the sound reverberating in the music room was so beautiful.”

Although Mediterranean cooking is nearest to her heart, Weir opened Copita, a modern award-winning Mexican restaurant in Sausalito with restaurateur Larry Mindel after the publication of her book, “Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails and Bites.”

“I love the place. I wanted it to feel very homey and warm, and that’s what people always say about that so that makes me happy,” said Weir who recently opened Tavola, a Mediterranean café in the University of Massachusetts Student Union. “I always make sure the food is what I want on the menu. I go to the meetings with the staff, and I go eat there every week so I know the restaurant. I even designed some of the interior.”

Weir says now’s a great time to be a foodie.

“I went to a fancy food show where the focus was on olive oil, and it’s being grown everywhere now. That’s really exciting,” she said. “Who would’ve thought they would be growing olive trees in countries like Australia, Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia?!

“And you see so many other new items nowadays, as well—like alternative nut butters, such as walnut butter.”

Weir says one of the biggest misconceptions people have about cooking is that it’s difficult. It hurts, she said, that so many people get food-to-go all the time.

Keep it simple. You don’t have to get complicated, she said.

There’s nothing better than a nice roasted chicken with a salad and fresh vegetables. You don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen preparing a meal—unless, of course, it’s a Saturday night and you want to spend an evening with friends or family cooking together.”

“I want people to stay in the kitchen and cook. You don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen preparing a meal—unless, of course, it’s a Saturday night and you want to spend an evening with friends or family cooking together.

“On Tuesday night, it’s going to take you 15 minutes to grill a chicken breast and steam some broccoli. If you want to get fancy, put a little bit of lemon or olive oil on it and you have a beautiful meal that’s simple and delicious.”

IF YOU GO:

Joanne Weir is cooking dinner and gabbing on Friday, Feb. 22, at the former Zinc Restaurant in Ketchum. And she’s doing a lunchtime cooking demonstration at a private home on Saturday, Feb. 23, at a private home. Tickets are $350 for one and -$550 for both, available at 208-726-9491 or aparker@sunvalleycenter.org.

 

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