Q: Congratulations on the launch of your cookbook, À Table. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the book? Why did you want to focus on entertaining French-style? What are some French fundamentals to hosting we can channel over here and what makes them uniquely French?
A: Thank you so much! À Table starts with apéro — the magical hour of drinking and snacking that is a both fundamentally French moment and also the subject of my first book, Apéritif — then moves you through the entirety of a French meal from mains and sides all the way into dessert and digestifs. It’s a guide to cooking and eating the French way, whether you’re having people over or making a meal for yourself.
I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Paris in 2015, and the most low-pressure (and delicious) way to make friends was to meet people out for apéro. Once I made some new connections, however, I continued to foster them by inviting people over. Slowly that evolved to weekly dinners with a rotating group of friends. À Table is just as much a book of recipes as it is a love letter to those people and gathering them around the French table.
Q: Tell us about l’heure de l’apéritif and your top tips for success.
A: L’heure de l’apéritif is my favorite part of pretty much every day, in or out of France. It’s a charmed yet extremely functional moment inherent to French culture that marks the transition from day to night. It usually but not always takes place during magic hour (aka between 5 and 7 pm) and you can do it wherever: out at a café or bar or in a park or at home. The main gist is to order or open something lovely — wine, sparkling water, something from the bar cart — and take a moment before dinner.
L’heure de l’apéritif is easy to get right as long as you really truly take the time to disconnect. You can do it alone or with friends or family. And there’s always a small, salty bite to pair with your drink, I’m partial to olives, potato chips, nuts, taralli (a crunchy Italian snack, seek them out!), or something else easy enough to pour into a bowl and get to it.
Q: Cheese before dinner? After dessert? For dessert?
A: Traditional French culture: cheese after the meal and before dessert. In modern French life: whenever it best suits you and the meal you’re looking to have. Traditionally and still quite lovely when it happens, fromage is a course. It’s also technically not served before dinner, but that’s a rule that is meant to be broken, I say.
Q: What are some of your favorite sweet and savory cheese pairings? Can you recommend a truly traditional French cheese pairing?
A: I love the classics, like fresh and dried fruits, fig spread, and quince paste — but I also love setting a hunk of whole honeycomb or a spoonful of caramel on the board and letting people get a little messy. If there’s a blue cheese around, sometimes I’ll tap into my stash of fancy candied maraschino cherries to serve with it. I always have some sort of olive, cornichons, and a selection of mustards in the house, so depending on how elaborate I want to get, I’ll put those out too.
But there’s also beauty in simplicity, so I’m all for just literally setting out a really good cheese and pretty much demanding people give it their full attention. In France, where cheese is traditionally the course between the meal and dessert, this means it’s often a pretty small portion to allow you to save room for dessert. There’s real beauty in a small wedge or round paired with a gorgeous serving utensil and the last few sips of that really good bottle of wine.
Q: When creating a cheese board, in your opinion, what are some key things to keep in mind?
A: If I’m serving a group or I’m not serving it as a course like we discussed above, I like to have three cheeses on my board or platter or plate. I’ve found three to be the ideal number for everyone to get a taste or multiple tastes of each, but not so much that people can’t keep track of what’s what.
I also always add a good portion of very good salted butter to the plate and treat it like a cheese.
Q: What is your approach to buying cheese for a gathering and what would you recommend to other hosts shopping for cheese?
A: If I’m at home, I go to my local shop and talk to the cheesemongers. They know what’s ripe, in season, and/or what I’m talking about when I’m looking for that one cheese I loved and can’t remember the name of. Regardless of where I’m getting my cheese, I like a mix of crowd-favorites and something special to introduce to the people I’m having over. If you’re choosing more than one cheese, make them different from each other in texture, shape, and milk variety (or all three!).
Q: Any advice for hosting a gathering – big or small – without feeling the pressure that always comes with having friends and family over for a meal?
A: Host an apéritif dînatoire, or snack dinner. It can be as involved as you like (aka have time for), whether it’s as effortless as bowls of potato chips and dips to putting out a full spread. Maybe you make a cocktail to start, or maybe you ask everyone to bring a bottle.
My best advice, whether you’re having a bunch of people over or just one for apéritif dînatoire or otherwise, is to seek balance in the enjoyment of hosting and the enjoyment of actually being part of the gathering. It’s meant to be fun! For everyone! If you’re stressing, delegate. Or order in or invite less people. Or you can always just give in the madness, open something bubbly and let the dishes pile up. As we are able to start gathering safely again, we are gathering so much more for the pleasure of the company, not how much work someone (you) put into what’s on the table.