Richard Olney

Karen MacNeil / October 1994

Food Arts presents the October 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to American-born Richard Olney, expatriate writer and educator non-pareil on the foods and wines of France.

Olney, 67, has lived in France for 43 years. From there, he has written—all in longhand—The French Menu Cookbook (David Godine, Boston, 1970/1985), Simple French Food (Macmillan, NY, 1974/1992), Provence The Beautiful Cookbook (Collins, San Francisco, 1993), Ten Vineyard Lunches (Interlink, Brooklyn, 1988), and the just-released LuLu's Provençal Table (Harper Collins, NY, 1994), which is based on the cooking of Madame LuLu Peyraud of Bandol's famous vineyard, Domaine Tempier. Olney was also the developer and editor of the Time-Life series The Good Cook ("27 volumes in eight years," he sighs) and has written two stunning wine books: Yquem (Flammarion, Paris, 1985) and Romanée-Conti, which has yet to be published in the United States. He is one of the few culinary professionals with expertise both in food and wine.

"I can't imagine eating food without wine—or even thinking about wine and food out of relationship to one another," he says.

"People ask me, 'Is cooking an art?' What a silly question. It's like saying the C key on a piano is a work of art. No. The totality is what counts—the composition of wine and food at the table."

Olney has the fit, serious, slightly sunburned look of a Midwestern farmer—not so surprising for someone who, after all, was born in Marathon, Iowa, and grew up in the farm belt. The eldest of eight children, Olney was raised by a mother who "cooked from necessity, not from passion" and a father who "had the mistaken notion that onions and garlic were vile because, among other things, they were detrimental to the breath."

Still, Olney fell in love with cooking as a child. "I was always in the kitchen stuffing chickens or making angel food cakes."

At 17, Olney became an art student at the University of Iowa and, he says, a "student of wine" at the same time. In 1945, he moved to New York to study at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. "We drank Rhône reds and decent Bordeaux that cost $1 a bottle," he remembers.

Requisite to all young artists—especially those who love food and wine—Olney made a pilgrimage to Paris, ultimately moving there in 1951. About a decade later he bought "a wreck of a house" in the south of France, where he lived ever since.

In Avignon, Olney taught cooking classes, which—unusual for the time—included wine tastings and restaurant outings. "Twenty years ago, I gave some classes at James Beard's house," he says. "Beard was furious with me. Not only did I charge more than he did, but I spent all the money on expensive wines for the students to taste. We would do a dessert class, and, as part of it, I'd feed them 1928 Yquem."

"Feed them?"

Olney's eyes twinkle at his verb choice. "Yes," he says. "One eats good wine."