It’s amazing what a stroll in the French countryside can do for one’s ability to cook.
That’s what happened to Dennis Barnette ’63, while exploring the area surrounding the home of noted chef and cookbook author Simone Beck, who collaborated with the iconic chef Julia Child on the classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
There to take a three-week cooking class on her property in the southern town of Placassier, near Nice, Barnette eventually found himself at her house and met the woman known as “Simca” and her husband, Jean Fischbacher.
The couple invited him in for tea, and that first course started a friendship that lasted for the remainder of the couples’ lives.
“I thought of her (Beck) as my grandmother,” said Barnette. “She reminded me so much of my (own). It really was a great relationship.”
Working as a banker gave him extended vacation time – about a month – that Barnette used to travel to Beck’s home annually. Often, he would serve as her assistant in the classroom, but the friendship grew to where he once spent Christmas with the couple and they, in turn, stayed with him in Chicago when in the U.S.
Though he didn’t assist Child in the classroom, she and her husband, Paul, had a house on Beck’s property, and Barnette enjoyed many relaxed and casual dinners with both couples at the place Child dubbed, “La Pitchoune,” (the little one).
One of his favorite stories from those trips was the time Child and Beck entertained the late Paris-based chef Raymond Oliver for lunch, which for the women was a minimum of six courses.
After Barnette finished helping Beck, he went to help Child as she prepared a leg of lamb and pan-roasted potatoes. She asked him if he would turn the seared vegetables.
“I went to get a spoon to do it and (Child) said, ‘No, no,’ and then (took the pan) and flipped them over. And, of course, they all went back in the pan beautifully.
“(Then) I did it, and they didn’t. They went all over, including on the floor. She and I were scooping them back up and (Child) just looked at me and said, ‘They’ll never know.’”
This kind of unassuming style, which Barnette greatly appreciated, was how the three would often cook meals together, even though Beck had a paid assistant for her classes as well as a sous-chef to help throughout the year.
In addition to Beck’s rigorous formal program, he was able to study one-on-one with Child, who received far more acclaim than her counterpart. However, Child often deferred to Beck, particularly in interviews for magazines like Gourmet or Bon Appétit.
“The (writers) would always identify Julia because of her presence in America,” he said. “But it was so clear to me as I sat and listened that Julia was so respectful of Simca and her knowledge.”
Barnette stopped going annually to France after about 10 years when he changed jobs and no longer had extended vacation time. He kept in touch through long letters with both Child and Beck until their deaths – Beck in 1991 and Child in 2004.
What was the best thing he learned from the celebrated women?
“I think I got my comfort with food in a general sense and knowing food preparation from Simca,” said Barnette. “It literally was, I think, an ability to appreciate and enjoy food, but also to not be a food snob, just as (Beck and Child) were not.
“(Child) was so down-to-earth. She was a remarkable woman who had the uncanny ability to talk to you and make you think that there was no other person that she was ever interested in, other than you.”
For more stories about food, check out the current issue of The Hanoverian at hanover.edu/thehanoverian.
Published Monday, July 15, 2013