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Photo copyright Jim Klousia for Edible Madison. Used with permission.

Culinary pioneer Monique Jamet Hooker is a chef, teacher, and author with a lifelong enthusiasm for food and travel. Born on a small farm in Brittany, France, to a family of modest means, Monique trained as a professional chef in Europe before moving to the United States in the 1960s—bringing her heritage in French cuisine, and the lessons she learned on her family’s farm, along with her.

Over the course of a career that involved restaurants, catering and a culinary school of her own, Monique wrote the award-winning book Cooking with the Seasons, A Year in My Kitchen and hosted a TV show called The Seasonal Kitchen. Today she lives in southwestern Wisconsin, travels widely to lecture and teach, and has been an advocate for “farm to school” cafeteria programs for the past 15 years. This is also Monique’s second Rootstock Radio conversation! We also spoke with her in 2015 about her background, including what it was like being a woman chef in the ’60s and becoming friends with notable chefs like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.

Monique’s upbringing has shaped and informed her own relationship with food and cooking. “We lived off the farm and every season brought something different,” she says. “In those days we didn’t have much, so we really had to be very sustainable and very careful in how we treated the land.” As a result, Monique is a determined advocate for eating—and cooking—with ingredients according to when they are naturally in season. “What is difficult is when you buy food that comes from God knows where, that is not ripe, and when you cook it, it tastes awful! Because it is not ripe, it does not have flavor. The freshness is what counts.”

Cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients is just one part of Monique’s culinary philosophy. She also firmly believes that good cooking does not have to be an intricate and arduous ordeal. Cooking can be simple, easy and fun, and she says many of the most delectable French dishes have surprisingly few ingredients.

Monique practices simplicity in the kitchen in other ways, too. “What I was taught all my life was to never disconnect one meal from another. What you cook tonight, there’s something in there that’s going to be good for tomorrow’s lunch or dinner. And the same the next day.”

Wisdom for chefs, food-lovers, and eaters (of which we are all at least one!)

Listen at the link above, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts, and don’t forget to subscribe!


Want more? Check out Monique’s first conversation with us, and hear our interviews with two other pioneer chefs: Ann Cooper and Mary Cleaver!


Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Monique Hooker

August 21, 2017

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am so delighted to be here with Chef Monique Jamet Hooker, a culinary pioneer, a teacher, an author, a lifelong enthusiast for food and travel, and an activist. Monique, so good to be speaking with you again.

MONIQUE HOOKER: Oh, good to be here again. I love, love your interview, love your radio—it’s really nice.

TM: Oh, nice of you to say that.

MH: And it’s a good, very good thing.

TM: Monique, you were born and raised in Brittany, France, and gee, that sounds so really lovely and wonderful and I’m kind of jealous about it. Can you tell us a little about what it was like to be born there in Brittany?

MH: Yeah, I mean, it’s not that we traveled so much, but the reason I’m here is because this Driftless area is very similar to where I was born and raised. What I mean by that is rolling hills, small family farm, which is what attracted us here, small villages, you know, and small town—so very involved. But our farm was not very big, about 60 acres approximately. And we were very diversified. We didn’t grow much commercially—it was pretty much, this is the way we live. We lived off the farm, and every season brought something different. So I was raised really close to the land and close to the season.

And in those days, you know, I was raised just after the war, but in those days we didn’t have much so we really had to be very sustainable and very careful in how we treated the land—and I always admire my father for that. And even though we were sent away to school because we lived too far from town—there was no communication between small farm and the town, so we were sent to the convent and we were raised in the convent and only came home every two months, or whatever, for vacation or time off of. But it was well spent and every time we come home there would be chores for us to do, there was some harvest for us to do. So we were constantly in contact with the farm.

And so of course we all left, pretty much, because you cannot keep ten kids in one farm, just like here. Some of us had to find places to go, and so that took us different parts of the country or different parts of the world, let’s put it that way. And…but it always stayed with me. And when I landed in New York in ’65, it was again for opportunity, for a way to proceed my dream. My dream was always to be a teacher. I think I learned that from being in a convent and being taught to be a missionary, and I always wanted to teach. I always had the urge to share and to learn. I was never satisfied, I was always thirsty for knowledge. And I’m really big in geography, I love people, and I love to see places, I love to discover, and that is what is really sustaining me constantly, because I’m always learning as I go.

So arriving in New York was not the answer for me, but I knew it was a step towards what I wanted to do. And this is where I really learned that my love of food—and don’t forget, it was mid-’60s, and mid-’60s European food was big in America. Everybody loved Greek food and French food and Italian food. It was a really big discovery time, and people were into cooking. And that’s where I picked up my love of teaching, just telling people how to make a boeuf bourguignon, how to make a great omelet, how to make a wonderful roasted chicken. And people had no knowledge of all that. And so that really, really fired my enthusiasm to do that.

And even then I had the opportunity to be asked to assist Julia Child in a few years, and she was doing a demo for her book promotion in New York. And I was under the table grabbing the plate for her when she was doing a demo for the TV! And in the process of that, I had shared with her that someone had given me a really wonderful vegetable, and when I opened the bag it was a huge zucchini—it was sometime in the fall—and I couldn’t believe the size of this zucchini. I said, “Oh, my goodness, I do have to teach these people!” No way I ever saw a zucchini that big. And I told her what I did with it, and I did an Indian curry with a zucchini. I didn’t have to use a drop of water because it all came out of that big zucchini—and it was delicious. And she told me, she said, “Monique, don’t ever forget that zucchini, and remember, mention it all the time, because this is how you teach.” And you know what? I do it all the time. Every time I go somewhere and teach I say, “Well, I…the zucchini.” And I shared that with her many times and many years later, and she and I laughed about it.

But this is what it takes—it takes the ability and willing to learn yourself, and to live by example. And that makes you a great teacher, and people listen to you because you’re not just teaching for the hell of it, you’re teaching because you love it. And try to find something you love and do it with enthusiasm and genuine sincerity. I think it’s the best thing that one can do in life.

TM: And you are such a great model for that. You are such a great teacher.

MH: Well, thank you, Theresa. And I think that I’m still—even though I don’t teach cooking classes per se anymore—but even through my Facebook and whatever, I’m always teaching, I’m always sharing. I’m always mentoring young people, high school kids, or anybody that comes my way. That is always—that should be in all of us to do that.

TM: This idea of teaching others to cook, I’m worried: it seems like less and less people are cooking. Are you seeing that too?

MH: Oh my goodness, I’ve seen it. I see the beginning of that downfall. Don’t forget the 1970s—after the ’70s and into today it all went downhill from there. Because frozen meal were big and people use frozen meal; TV dinners became very big—I mean, I couldn’t believe it. And then of course, you know, a lot of people are watching TV and reading cookbooks, and a lot of it looks difficult—they don’t want to make it that difficult. But they don’t realize that’s not what we do at home.

And I think I really blame, sometimes, some of those things because we make it so difficult, when cooking at home is so simple. We professional chefs do not cook that way at home. We do it for business, for when you come to my restaurant. Yes, I serve you beautiful food, and I have people in the kitchen helping me in the restaurant. At home, it’s very simple. It might be very similar but very simple, very simplified. And that’s where we lose everybody.

TM: I wonder whether sometimes… My daughter is trying to start an organic ramen business, and she said, “Mom, I’m frustrated—people don’t seem to know how to boil water anymore.”

MH: That’s right.

TM: We want to put it all in the microwave. What do you think can turn that a little bit? Because I would think that health would be one of those things, because our health, with the advent of frozen food and people gave up their health to large corporations and said, “I’m going to put my health in your hands.” What can we do?

MH: Yeah, very definitely. I mean, very definitely. Going out to dinner four times a week, that’s not a way to live, you know? And giving into all kinds of prepared food that you buy, then you just have to put in the microwave, that’s not a way to do, because cooking at home is not just cooking. Cooking is living at home, is sharing, is being together, it’s conversation, it’s partaking in each other’s life. And by not doing that, we are not partaking in each other. And then we wonder why, “Oh, I didn’t know my kid was this way. I didn’t know my wife was not doing this. Oh, I didn’t know you were not feeling good. Oh, how come you put weight on?” And on, and on like this. It’s all negative, there’s nothing positive about it. It’s quick and fast and we have to learn to slow down.

We have to learn to slow down, we have to learn to make a balance. Oh, yes, I do go out to dinner once in a while, but I do not go out and I do not eat pizza. I very rarely eat a hamburger, and if I do, I would do it at home. If I go out to dinner I enjoy it, it’s quiet and it’s fun, conversation-wise. And that’s what we’re missing, Theresa. We’re missing that putting our arm around each other—not physically but emotionally, we’re not doing that. And so, what do you do? You’ve got to lead by example.

And you have to agree that people do not know how to boil an egg, people do not know how to roast a chicken, and very simple like that. So for them, it’s very scary and task oriented. And not everybody in the house has to learn how to cook, but everybody has to learn to survive. We have to learn to be sustainable. And show them the fun of it and show them how it comes out. And let’s stop making cooking so complicated and show people how complicated it is. Let’s enjoy going out to enjoy complicated food but stay at home to make simple food.

(11:09)

TM: That sounds quite French, too, because the French, really—people think that French cooking is very complicated, but I think the French themselves—

MH: No, no, no, you are right: French cooking is not complicated. What’s complicated in French cuisine is the sauce, the sauce that you make to serve with it. You’ll notice French cuisine always has a sauce, always has a finished touch to it. It has levels, it has—I call that, you get a simple roasted chicken. Well, it’s not just simple—they’ve got some spices, they’ve got some way to cut it, they have some way to present it, and it’s very well studied. I mention that because we did a six-week driving tour of Eastern European countries this spring. And it really dawned on me that a lot of cuisine—not what I call refined cuisine, it’s wonderful food, there’s a lot of local food, of course—but the finesse of the restaurant cuisine is really beyond the actual technique. There’s many things involved. The sensory are involved, and this is where French cuisine, and even Spanish cuisine, Italian cuisine, it’s all with that finesse—the sense.

And I think most of us do not know how to cook with our senses, and we have to wake up those senses. Because it’s a sensory thing that makes us enjoy food, because it smells good, because it looks good, or because it feels good. And in French cuisine and refined Spanish cuisine, Italian cuisine, all that takes place in one plate.

TM: I’m thinking of your Cooking with the Seasons: A Year in My Kitchen,  which is your wonderful cookbook in which I think that you demonstrate, when you use local food, just how easy it is to cook with it. How do you marry that seasonal cooking with just a simple approach that isn’t daunting for people?

MH: Well, the seasonal cooking is what is simple, because the food is so delicious in season and so easy, so tender, that you don’t barely have anything to do to it. Let them, let that ingredient, let that chicken, let that fish speak to you. Just add one ingredient or two—maybe a little bit of butter to sauté it; it could be olive oil, it could be anything. But let that fish—is it fresh? The freshness is what counts.

What is difficult is when you buy food that comes from God-knows-where that is not ripe, and when you cook it, it tastes awful because it’s not ripe, it doesn’t have flavor, it’s lost its flavor. So right away your senses are telling you that you don’t like it, so you blame yourself. You say, “I followed the recipe,” but you did not take the carrots that I took when I did the carrot ginger soup. And the carrot ginger soup has three ingredients in it: carrots, rice, and ginger. And if you look in my cookbook, most of the recipe, I would say 60 to 70 percent of the recipes, don’t have any more than four or five ingredients, including salt and pepper. Because food is in season—it doesn’t matter if it’s going to be a piece of fish or it could be a game—it really is simple to cook because they themselves, the ingredients themselves, really speak for themselves. They are good to begin with, so there’s no way you can destroy it.

TM: Well, you know, what you’re talking is, cooking can be simple and fun.

MH: Oh, it’s simple and fun. And the fun comes in to say, “Yay, I did it! Yes, it tastes good! Yes, the kids love it! Yes, my husband, my wife loves it!” That’s it! You’re a winner right there. You don’t have to be your own judgment all the time; you have to satisfy that. And season does teach you that, because how many people look forward to the fresh asparagus? I mean, come on, you can’t eat asparagus all year, they don’t taste right. But when you have them fresh in the spring, just came out of the ground, they are delightful, and the farmer’s markets are filled with them. So you eat asparagus in the spring.

I do not touch another asparagus until next spring—I’m finished with asparagus. I now am into sugar peas and green beans. And then I’ll be into zucchini and whatever, and you move on. You move on with the season, just the way you move on with the season with sport. I mean, we look at sport, and we say, “Oh my goodness, well, it’s baseball season, it’s football season, it’s tennis season.” But when it comes to food, we completely forget. And this is where we’ve got to get back to it and we’ve got to get used to it. But when you eat out, the only thing you get is potato; broccoli; barely green beans, never; tomato, tomato products. But rarely you get any other vegetables because the restaurants do not cook all those vegetables. So you’re not used to it.

So you have a tendency to cook what you’re familiar with. It might come from your habits out there, it might come from your family—your family is used to potato and cabbage and nothing green on the plate and nothing red on the plate, so you grew up this way. But that can be changed—it can be introduced very gently, very slowly.

(16:48)

TM: If you’re just joining us you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Chef Monique Hooker, and we are talking about cooking as being not that hard. It’s simple, it can be fun. And Monique, also what I love about the way you present food is it’s artistic. I feel like you’re an artist, when you talk about food, the way you approach it with such creativity. Is that like part of maybe what’s missing for some people? Maybe we need to get people more involved in the art of cooking.

MH: Well, the art of cooking, there needs to be involved with their food directly by knowing what they’re doing and not instead of grabbing it and, “Okay, I’ve got to eat something.” You know, it makes it more joyful when you’re working with something with colors and shape. And that’s what art is about, is color and shape. And the art of cooking, it can take you many, many places, but the simplicity has to stay at focus for a family, to keep it simple and make it easier to work.

And so you have to work with texture, when it’s done, when it’s al dente; or salad, crispy instead of limp. So knowing all that is part of everyday experience. You cannot learn it overnight; you have to keep trying at it.

And you know, sometime we have a tendency to give up. “Oh, someone didn’t like it, so I’m not going to do it again.” But you don’t like something the first time, and you don’t have to go way out of your way. But I’d like to speak to everybody who just loves Indian food and Mexican food, and all those wonderful sensory flavors. The reason they like them is because there’s so much joy into the flavors of it and the smell of it, you know, and the comfort of eating something—and it’s simple, too. It’s just that the spices are new to you, but yet when you eat it in the food that you go to a restaurant, it’s fine. But so take those home with you, take those flavors back with you. You love something, maybe you had some tamarind sauce, or you had some turmeric, or you had some cilantro. Now just bring the cilantro in the house, bring those spices in the house. And really make the house, and whatever you’re cooking, make it smell good, just like you were baking a chocolate chip cookie that makes you want to have one.

TM: I can smell it right now. So Monique, you have a garden, don’t you?

MH: I do have a garden, yes.

TM: What are you eating out of your garden now, Monique?

MH: This year we are not eating too much out of the garden because the weather has been so bad, but we had some peas and we had some—first green beans are coming up. We’ve had lots of herb, lots of lettuce, which are coming up, so it’s really delightful to go to the garden. And normally to have it a few leaves here and there, because it doesn’t take much from a garden to have dinner. But also to check on everything else and to see when the tomatoes are coming up.

So the garden is really a nice companion to a kitchen. And it really shows you how fun it is, how difficult it can be for someone to grow this and how difficult it is to get to the table via the store. It’s a very good teaching tool. So I really love my connection to the garden because it really makes me go out of the house and sit out there and pay attention to what I’m doing.

So hopefully in a few weeks we’re going to have a lot more. I see peppers coming up, I see more green beans coming up, which is wonderful. So this is the season of eating greens, so everything I’m eating—like baby kale is coming out of the garden, which is wonderful. But after the baby kale will be spinach, and after the spinach will be some other leafy green; you know, Brussels sprouts are coming up. And you know, so that’s what the garden does.

And why do I have a garden? For the simple reason I love the connection to my food. And sometimes I don’t have enough and I go to the farmers’ market, and I connect with the farmers’ market, and also by whatever there is [in] season at the farmers’ market. And now everybody has farmers’ markets somewhere, and if not, they should try one. But I think there’s a lot more farmers’ markets out there, which is wonderful to see.

TM: It is amazing how the farmers’ markets and the CSAs have just exploded.

MH: Exploded, it’s wonderful.

TM: So even though we’re seeing that people don’t seem to want to cook, they must be—somebody must be cooking out there. Monique, I have to ask you this: give us a sample of a dinner that you cooked in the past week.

MH: Well, this past week, I was just putting in on Facebook, for example: I roasted a chicken, because I love roasted chicken. And when I do, I roast two chickens, because there’s going to one that’s going to be good for next week, because I don’t cook every night either. And that’s something I want to share with everybody. My mother never cooked every night. There was always something left tonight for tomorrow, either to turn into a soup or whatever.

So this weekend we did a roasted chicken, and I smothered the chicken with tandoori spice, a little spice mixture that I get at the Spice House. But many of us that go to Indian restaurants know tandoori chicken and tandoori this. And I smothered a whole chicken with that and put it in the oven and roasted it at 400 for about an hour and a half. It was so delicious. And then, next to that, what I did, I made a tandoori sauce using coconut milk, one whole head of fresh garlic, cilantro, and some more tandoori spice in there, and boiled that for about 15-20 minutes. Then I cut up the chicken that came out of the oven, put it in the sauce, and cooked it for another 15 minutes in the sauce, and I served that over rice. Oh my god, there was not one drop left after my friends finished with it. And then the second chicken that was roasting next to it, I cut that up and I put some in the freezer and I turned some into a chicken salad the next day.

So what I’m saying to everybody is that when you cook something one night, make it wonderful, but make extra for the next day, because it would be good for a making a salad, you can reheat it, you can turn into a soup. I keep the chicken bones to make a nice soup with that because now the soup is going to have a flavor of the tandoori.

So what I was taught all my life is to never disconnect one meal from another. What you cook tonight, there’s something in there that’s going to be good for tomorrow’s lunch or dinner, and the same thing the next day. And it keeps weaving itself like this, and add to it. You know, if you rice left over, sauté some spinach, put some almonds in there, and now you have a beautiful rice-spinach dish to serve with maybe the salad—then you have supper. Not every supper has to have meat, and I think we have to eat a lot more vegetables. So I always connect my meal from one day to another. There’s always a connection.

(24:26)

TM: You know, Monique, I have a feeling that your mother, as you said, cooked like that, and then she taught you that. You know, we have a huge, big population now. By 2020 they say that 45 percent of the population are going to be under the age of 35. They’re going to be moms, and I’m wondering, what advice can we give to those moms? I cook a lot of things that my mom taught me to cook because I was the fifth of eight—I was the middle kid. But what can the young moms do today so that they’re going to raise kids who do want to shop at the farmers’ market, who do want to have a garden or cook from scratch. Definitely is a healthy way to go!

MH: Oh, definitely a healthy way to go. That’s the first thing to put on your plate is your health. You know, your health is right there on your plate—look at it. And if you don’t recognize it, then you’ve got a problem. And then teach your children the same way. When you have the kids in the kitchen, don’t throw the children out of the kitchen, because that’s what happened in the ’80s. The kitchen got so small, there was no room for everybody. And now, today people are back into big kitchens, kitchen that’s part of the living room, whatever. Keep the children in the kitchen—just make it part of it. Either setting up the table, or pulling the leaf off something, or slicing something. Turn your electronics off—that’s the first thing to do, please, you know, is to turn those electronics off. Just be in the kitchen.

Those are very good quality times. Even my friends, when we get together, we’re always in the kitchen finishing the meal I’m doing, and we have a lot more fun and exchanging conversation. And many times this is also how the kids can share the problems they’ve had at school, the success they have at school, because when they are doing something, they automatically, deep down, their emotions just come up very easier—much easier to talk. And food is a very good healing process, and I think this is where you can teach your kids—teach your kids by example. Show we live by example. And that’s how I live, I live by example and I show example, and share those.

And another thing I did with my children, which is something people should be doing today, you cook for your family, three, four times a week, and if you have two child[ren], three child[ren], give a child a responsibility for a meal. “Okay, what would you like to cook for us? What would you like to eat?” Well, if it’s a hot dog, then find some side dish that go with it that’s healthy. You know, whatever the kids—make them that little bit of responsibility. “Mom, what if we did a stir fry today?” Okay, fine—what is a stir fry? We take a sauté pan, put a little bit of oil in the pan, and throw in some, a lot of cut vegetables and stir it. That’s what stir fry means. Make it smell good, throw some herbs in there; even better, put a little sesame oil in there, put some nuts in there. And before you know it, you’ve got a nice side dish. It takes five minutes.

TM: Well, I want to really thank you for just doing all the great things that you do, for being the model that you are. And what a wonderful and meaning life you’ve had.

MH: Thanks, Theresa, thank you very much. You know, so if you plant a seed and you give it a good environment, a good thing—it could be in a home, it could be in a garden, it could be in someone’s mind, in someone’s heart—it is the environment that causes it grow and to share. But we must share. The problem is we don’t share enough. A lot of people don’t—they think of themselves too much. They don’t think of the whole community around them. We are all part of a big community, and it’s a wonderful community, no matter where you are. It’s that community is what makes you who you are.

TM: Thank you so much, Monique. That is such great advice, and I’m going to take that to heart. And I’m going to try to find all the ways that I can share, because I think that is a good advice for those of us getting older: it’s time for us to share and to model. And you are certainly are the right person to look at for that, so I’m delighted.

MH: Thank you, Theresa.

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