Obituary: Richard Olney

Nora Carey
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:36

IT WAS Richard Olney's belief that "food and wine must be an essential aspect of the whole life, in which the sensuous - sensual - spiritual elements are so intimately interwoven that the incomplete exploitation of any one can only result in imperfection".

To achieve this, he insisted on "simplicity", a term that was not intended to denote basic nourishment or a holiday in the kitchen for the so-inclined cook but was rather a synonym for purity; whether seeking to accent a single flavour from a specific product such as a perfectly roasted pheasant, unaltered by hanging, a confusion of forcemeats or alcoholic deglazing; or combining the flavours from several products in rustic cooking to achieve a single statement of perfect harmony. By no accounts did the term "simple" exclude involved preparations.

Olney was born in Marathon, Iowa, in 1927 and moved to Provence in 1962, via Paris, to paint. However, right from his first years in Paris in the mid-1950s, he was distracted from his painting by the seduction of French gastronomy and oenology. He embarked on a cooking and writing career which kept him at a distance from his first artistic passion, yet positioned him, quite unintentionally, as a leading world authority on food and wine. He always intended to go back to painting seriously, when his next book was finished.

Olney was the first American amateur cook to write about the art of cooking in a style that captivated an audience; not only for his engaging narrative prose, but for the precision in describing mechanical details and thorough explanations of culinary alchemy. Although his audience was limited at first to the enlightened few, his readership steadily grew, based on the seriousness of his writing and the philosophy he nurtured. His singular success reached beyond the heights that any carefully planned public relations strategy could dream of achieving.

In 1970 he published his first cookbook, The French Menu Cookbook, an extension of his monthly column started in the late 1960s for the French gastronomic magazine Cuisine et Vin de France. In 1974 he published Simple French Food, which included his own drawings. These two volumes became the cornerstone of his success, drawing praise from both professional and amateur cooks. The accolades where not just for the recipes but for a philosophy concerning the table that made tremendous sense.

These volumes armed the reader with the rules of serious cooking and the tools to achieve the desired results. He considered this base necessary to develop confidence and provide the ability to move forward, allowing the imagination and improvisation to step in - essential for evolution in the kitchen.

It has been often said that his writing and teaching were ahead of his time; however, a more favourable analysis positions him as a leader. He propelled, from the start, a new generation of intelligent cooks, amateur and professional, to strive for purity.

In the late 1970s, Olney was solicited by Time-Life books to mastermind The Good Cook; a series of 27 volumes of step-by-step cookery books presented by food categories. Over five years, he relentlessly orchestrated a team of researchers, writers, editors, photographers, designers and cooks to create the definitive and unrivalled reference on techniques, with an exhaustive anthology of international recipes. The success of the series was marked by its translation into 12 languages.

In two subsequent cookbook endeavours, Olney indulged in his affinity for Provencale cuisine. For Provence the Beautiful Cookbook (1993) he contributed sensible and enticing Mediterranean recipes and, with Lulu's Provencal Table (1994), he interpreted the food and wine traditions established by Lulu Peyraud, the matriarch of Domaine Tempier, producers of the best rose and red wine in Bandol.

Olney's publications were not limited to cookery books. His knowledge and passion for wine was widely recognised, in particular by the great wine producers of France. Two of the most rewarding moments of his career came when he was selected by Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces, then proprietor of Chateau d'Yquem, to record the history of this prestigious wine, and then by Aubert de Villaine of Romanee-Conti for a similar monograph of his world-class production. The book on Yquem was awarded the Prix Litteraire des Relais Gourmands 1986.

His final book, Reflections, an autobiography prompted by his friends, was in the final stages of editing when he died. The book will be published in the autumn.

Olney was often considered a recluse, and sometimes a curmudgeonly one, but this was perhaps a misinterpretation for his dislike of commercialism in any form. He was extremely hard-working and chose to seek perfection in all facets of his life, whether in constructing a simple yet harmonious environment to live in and entertain friends and family, or in producing scholarly work. This quest for perfection left him with little idle time and no interest in pursuing a celebrity circuit.

Richard Olney's writings may come to share the position bestowed upon A. Escoffier's 1903 Guide Culinaire as the international authoritative culinary text of the 20th century. A pair well-matched. Escoffier preached "Faites simple" and devoted his career to eradicating the excessive culinary follies invented by his predecessors. He was rigid in his belief that the fundamentals and principles of cooking should be adhered to in order to maintain quality and excellence.

However, while Escoffier accepted modifications and adaptions, one senses a fear to deviate. Olney, similar in his lifelong campaign for simplicity and belief in solid foundations, departed from Escoffier's teachings in wholeheartedly encouraging the use of imagination and improvisation in the kitchen once the rules were mastered - a culinary evolution that only an artist could instigate.

Richard Olney, food and wine writer: born Marathon, Iowa 12 April 1927; died Sollies-Toucas, France c 3 August 1999.

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