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Today on Rootstock Radio, we’re speaking with culinary pioneer Chef Monique Hooker, whose most recent endeavor, Got2HavPie, is bringing delicious, flaky pie crusts made with organic, sustainably sourced ingredients to those who don’t have the time or skill to make them. But pie is not the only reason we’re speaking to Monique.

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

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

Monique was born in Europe and trained as a chef there before moving to New York, where she worked alongside and made lasting friendships with many notable chefs in the 1960s. She moved to Chicago in the 1970s, where she operated a cooking school, a catering company and a restaurant. She has co-written an award-winning book, Cooking With The Seasons: A Year In My Kitchenand even hosted a TV show called “The Seasonal Kitchen.”

Monique clearly likes to keep busy.

Join us as we speak to her from where she lives in Southwest Wisconsin.


Want more? Listen to our interviews with two other pioneer chefs: Ann Cooper and Mary Cleaver!


Transcript: Interview with Monique Hooker, pioneer chef

Air date: June 29, 2015

Editor’s Note: Monique Hooker speaks with a French accent.

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: This week it’s such an honor and delight to introduce you to Monique Hooker. She’s a chef, a teacher, an author and activist who was born and raised in France and now lives here in southwest Wisconsin near the Mississippi River. Monique often describes herself as a behind-the-scenes kind of person. Out front, she manages a most delicious little business, Got2HavPie. Yes, Monique loves pie and markets a piecrust to die for—organic ingredients, organic butter from sustainable farms. She adds quality to America’s favorite dessert. Please meet the amazing Monique Hooker.

(1:25)

TM: Monique, I am very familiar with the fact that you were born and raised, weren’t you, in Brittany, France?

MONIQUE HOOKER: I was born and raised in Brittany, France. And a lot of time, everybody would say, “How did you get from there to here?” Well, to tie the whole thing, it’s here looks very similar to there. So if you know a little bit about Brittany, it’s very rural. I was born in a very large family, ten siblings on a farm, before/during the war. And so the times were very different, let’s put it that way. But at the same time we had a quality of life that my mother said that nobody else had, because we were right on the farm, we were all together, we ate well, right from the land.

And what I mean by “well,” I don’t mean expensive things. No, it was well prepared, it was well shared together, it was all done together, our whole family. We were very, very poor, so 1940s was really not a good time to grow up. But at the same time, the war put us all together. It was so valuable time. So you learn how to survive. And today I think there’s a lot of people that would not know how to survive because of the way the food comes to them.

TM: Yeah, there’s a lot of people who don’t know how to cook!

MH: Well, that’s part of survival. So I’m really appreciative of that. But it also teaches you good lessons of what food is all about, you know.

And how did I get into this industry, it’s truly by chance, by being in the right place and thinking the right way, being taught the right way. And I mean the word teaching, and this is where I think all of us chefs are there. We are and we owe to teach the clientele, the people. We are the link between the roots of the vegetables and the consumers. We are, and we have to believe that.

And I grew up in a society where, first of all, we were not teachers. We were machos(?), and women in the industry were not to be seen. So I grew up at a difficult time and learned the hard way, let’s put it that way. So from scrubbing the copper pots at midnight for a very three-, four-star restaurant, Michelin in France, to taking the stock down, to being sent out of the kitchen when the food was starting to be prepared. My first job was milking the cows to bring the cream to the kitchen, and then scrub the floor at a beautiful resort in Brittany. That was my first job. I was fifteen and a half. So let’s leave that behind and let’s not forget it.

And the reason I say that is because being a woman in the industry, you know, I look at young women today. They have the opportunity, they have a lot more than I did. I was forced into it. We had to go to work—my family could not afford to keep us all at home, I know, so at a very early age you had to figure out how to make a little money to help. And you know, I ended up in a convent because I wanted to be a missionary, I wanted to be a teacher. So I was brainwashed to be in a convent, until I realized, “What are you doing?” My mission was, my goal was to go to Madagascar and the Seychelle Islands. That still is my goal—I’m gonna make it there someday. That was when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, whatever.

So I woke up one day and said, “No, my father says you are not—out of there!” So he sends me off to Paris to open my eyes up. And I’m telling you, coming from the convent to Paris is really survival—I am telling you, survival to the hardcore! And I was fortunate enough to land up a job at a studio that took pictures for a cookbook to come out. It was Remo Oliver [Editor’s note: We were unable to verify this chef’s name]. And Remo Oliver was a top chef in Paris in those days, and I was [unclear—right there in the city?] so I learned how to make food look good. Oh wow! So I ended up being in the studio a little bit, putting food together, and it just excited me so much, you know.

And I went back to my mother the same way and said, my mother, she made brown stock, she made chicken stock, she made vegetable stock—but she wasn’t thinking that way. She was just using everything she had in the kitchen. And so as a chef, I learned to take those basics and refine them, you know. And this is what we all have to learn, is to take what we know and what we are taught and refine them. The same thing in jewelry making, in painting, any kind of art or whatever—and actually culinary is an art, and I’m insisting on that, you know, it’s a culinary art.

TM: I agree with you, it is an art.

MH: It is an art. So from there to Paris, and I ended up in Paris—I’m not going to talk too much about that. I ended up in New York, because in France I wasn’t going to get anywhere with those macho guys. And many of them are my friends—don’t get me wrong. Paul Bocuse, I know, participated with many things with them. But I’m always that woman on the side, I’m always… They have a nickname for me, called la bibiche. La bibiche is that little cutie woman, you know. It has kind of a sexual intonation, and I don’t know if I can use that. But anyway, forgive me, but that’s…so I’m always la bibiche.

TM: But just one second before you leave—did you get your roots to, and did you leave, when you left Paris, did you know, “I’m going to be in the food industry”?

MH: Oh yes, oh yes, I was definitely. And that’s the reason—

TM: So you got your passion there.

MH: Because my passion started when I was at the farm, cooking. And I was…ten siblings, each one of us had a passion. And I’m in the family, I’m the chef. I have a brother who was a pastry chef. I have a sister who is a seamstress. Because we all had a job to be able… We lived without running water, you know. And people say, “Were you Amish?” I say no, those were the days!

So anyway, so my passion was fired. I was fired. And I had the pleasure to meet, to know one of Julia Child’s cowriters, Simone Beck, way before she knew Simone. And Simone Beck, we encountered each other and she was a feisty, feisty woman in the industry before she even met Julia. And so I got some of that from her, the passion. And then I came to New York because of not being able to succeed in France. I was never there… First you couldn’t teach French people how to cook—oh no, they all know how to cook, so forget that.

So I came to New York, didn’t speak a word of English. And so many friends were there—my brothers were already there and had a restaurant in upstate New York. But a good friend, Jacques Pepin, who at the time, Jacques was just one of us. He was just—

TM: Wow…

MH: —the same way. You know, we were all together. And then one say, I was in New York City, and then I got a call. There was a woman in town and she was doing a cooking demonstration to promote her book, and whatever. And they said, but she’s looking for someone to help, but she does speak French. I said fine, I’m going, you know—book, cook, whatever. And so I go. And guess who it was? Julia Child.

(9:07)

MH: So I was there with Julia Child in 1966, and she, the same way, she inspired me. And I remember telling her about this big zucchini that someone gave me, a huge baseball bat zucchini. And my eyes popped out of my face, I said, “What on earth is this vegetable?” I said, “That’s it. I need to teach these people, you cannot do vegetables like this.” And first of all, in New York, you couldn’t find a fish with a head; you couldn’t find vegetables smaller than the baseball bat zucchini kind of stuff; fresh vegetables barely existed; and on and on and on like this, fast food. I said, oh my god, these people need an eye-opener.

So I started teaching in 1966, June of 1966 I started, and I’ve never stopped since. And did I speak much English? No. With food you do not need a language. When I worked in Thailand, I do not need the language. I just—food is the language. And that’s what I want people to know. It’s, food is the language. And the passion just went on and on and on. People were so receptive. French food was big.

And then suddenly I realized, where is all this coming from? Where is this food coming from? And in New York City at the time, we still had a few farmers. We lived in Queens, so we had connections with the Italian market, the Greek market. So they had some sources up the Hudson Valley. And the restaurant my brother had up in the Catskills, he had sources around him, and he was so proud of it. Not all of it came—but it came locally. We didn’t even talk about organic then at the time; that was beyond our rim of imagination. But anyway, lo and behold, you know, I got really tired of New York because I got claustrophobic. I needed land, I needed dirty fingernails, I needed something to grasp on. So I decided—in New York City, most people did not like Chicago. I didn’t like New York. So I packed my suitcase and my guitar and off to Chicago I went.

So, and I said, oh wow, I’m right in the middle of the Midwest. This has got to be the basin of all the wonderful stuff. And it was, in many ways. And that’s where I met my husband. But anyway, food-wise, Chicago was really the fire. It was a bonfire for me, because I got involved with the first of the Midwest best of the farmers market [[the first Best of the Midwest Market]]. Oh my god,1984, I’ll never forget. And we formed this wonderful association through the American Institute of Wine and Food. We had a chapter in Chicago, and five of us—Gordon Sinclair and Michael Forlean(?), Abby Mandel, myself, and Jill Van Cleave—were involved in organizing this Best of the Midwest. Nine states, let’s bring all the best we have to Chicago and showcase. And every year, once a year, we’d bring all those farmers, eighty of them from all the nine states, and showcase all the best of the Midwest. And it was not all organic—they were all doing very sustainable. And that was so incredible. We ended up having tens of thousands of people attending, and we had an education program going on, and whatever. So that was really the bonfire. And from that bonfire really came everything else.

I opened a restaurant in 1983, and I was the first to bring out what they called then “nest eggs.” They were organic eggs. I had a nest in a retail store with the eggs in it to showcase they were nest eggs, because they couldn’t understand why they were called nest eggs. They were brown and blue, and people would say, “Well, did you dye your eggs?” you know, whatever. So education never, never ended. To me it was so exciting because I had so much to educate, so much material. I was looking forward to my really big long career in education.

And then one day, out of the blue, this gentleman shows up at the restaurant. And he has a packet of seed—he had just come from Europe. He went to Europe, he had this bunch of packet of seed with him. And he was retired, very, made his money in the printing industry, but from Wisconsin originally. And he says, “Monique, I have all these seeds. I don’t understand anything on the package. Can you translate it for me?”

I said, “Sure, I will do that, Michael.” And it was called Ladybug Farm—I don’t know if you remember that, but it made a lot of noise. And Ladybug Farm, Michael was just fabulous. So I translated the seed for him. He went home, planted his farm, and trained young people to become farmers. You know, so it was a co-op already. And I’m talking about 1984 again, 1985. And he went on to really produce—he’d say, “Now what do I do with those vegetables?”

I’d say, “Michael, you enter the back door of all these restaurants”—I gave him all the French restaurant and the best restaurant in town at that time—and I said, “Walk in the back door, present your vegetables very beautiful[ly].” Because at the time, organic vegetables and sustainable local vegetables were not presented very pretty. They used to come to town with dirty vegetables and wilted. And I said, no, no, no, no, no, we can’t do this. So we had to walk through the whole presentation—

TM: I see, so you started educating the farmers, didn’t you?

MH: Yes, big time. And the farmers were producing things that people never heard about. I said, “Don’t do that yet. Do farm what they know, and then slowly bring in other things. But get the zucchini, get the tomatoes out there. Get the broccoli, people.” And they finally got it. It was exciting times, exciting times. We met a lot of exciting people; we helped each other a lot.

So the chefs really are the key to all this. I really want them to know that. Because you are serving the people in your restaurant, and consequently they go home and whatever. You owe to the community to teach them through your menu. Tell them where it came from. Put a name on that food.

(15:39)

So when I was teaching professional cooking, I did it for eighteen years, I ended up with surgery. And during the surgery, after surgery recovery, I said, “It’s time for me to put my story down for the boys.” I have two boys. And so it ended up to be a cookbook. So we did a cookbook, and of course I said, well, I’ve got to teach people the seasonal food. People got no idea—

TM: This is your Cooking With the Seasons?

MH: Cooking With the Seasons.

TM: Let me just say it for our listeners. Cooking With the Seasons: A Year in My Kitchen.

MH: Mm-hmm. In the process of doing that, when the book came out, many things happened. First the book got “Best Cookbook” international award [[a “Best Cookbook” award from the International Cookbook Revue (ICR)]] along with Williams Sonoma’s book at the time and Anne Willan’s book at the time, the three Americans, in Germany, at the international book sale. And I went wow! And I went back to Paris to receive the award. And my sister came as a guest because she was so proud of me, one of my sisters. And I received an award. And the best chef in Europe, a very chauvinist man, Joël Robuchon, had to cook lunch for me. Ah, yes! Yes, I did it! That was my reward.

And you know, it was the first book at the time that talked about the seasons. And I went to Washington to do a book signing, because Philip’s family is there, so I had a lot of politicians that came to the book signing and they all got a book, of course. Are they using it? I don’t know. But Nora Pouillon at the time, I’d just opened a restaurant, and so she was a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, which I was, too. So she hosted a book signing for me and for the members of Le Dames d’Escoffier, and Nora [unclear] at the time, before she became an all-organic restaurant.

So the connection with foods is endless. The thing is, that’s what I love about it, and the education. And that’s my mission, is to connect the source of your food to the consumer.

TM: By the way, how did you get here in the Driftless Region?

MH: Well, when it was time to retire, Philip and I—Philip took early retirement, and we decided that we had a list of things that we required. It had to be cold(?), it had to be north, it had to be on water, hills, valley, a small town, whatever.

TM: It had to look like Brittany?

MH: It had to look like Brittany.

TM: And does it?

MH: It does in many ways, yes, especially in my little corner. So we have the Mississippi below—I mean, I don’t look at it, but it’s not too far from us. We’ve got the valley, we’ve got a small farm. And that’s how I got involved, you know. It’s a long road, but it’s not a straight road. I don’t want anybody to ever think that where you’re going is going to be a straight road. It’s going to be just like the Coulee Region, with valleys and turns and twists and whatever. But don’t ever lock the door behind you. Always have this wide open mind, opportunity to do that.

But I have a passion, and I like to share it, and I think there’s nothing better than to be able to learn from someone who has a passion for something. Because I never really had a job, because every day I get up to do what I wanted to do and love to do.

TM: How lucky!

MH: So if you can’t find that passion and fire it up and try to find people that have the same passions you do… And that’s a reward you get, to be my age, to seeing all this, that you‘ve been part of all these years of seeing that growing family and taking over. And I think that’s a reward right there. I don’t need a piece of paper, I don’t need anything. I just need to know that what I have been planting is growing. And that, to me, it’s my life. I just love it.

TM: You know, I have so admired just how you’ve taken your passion, your love for food, and really are an effective activist, Monique. And I want to appreciate you for that. And I know that there are so many things that you’re involved in—organizations, politics, local communities, and so on. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the things that you’re doing here in the Driftless?

MH: Well, I think that one of the biggest joys that I’ve done here is to establish with Marilyn Volden the Farm to School in Vernon County. That was a big accomplishment. It took a lot of effort, it took a lot of going down to the Assembly, going down to the Senate down there, going to all the school conferences all over Wisconsin, to talk about the importance of installing Farm to School in the schools. So in the process of doing that through the Farm to School, I think I have trained over eight hundred school districts in doing a better job, between the state of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. And are they doing it? They’re doing some of it. You’ve planted the seed—I think that’s my biggest pride. Mentoring the kids here through school so if they want to work and learn through the food industry, they work by my side. I do a lot of fundraising for different organizations, from the Driftless Art Fair to the Crawford School to wherever it’s necessary, using all locally grown food.

Now, we talk about organic a lot, and I think organic is the answer to everything. But there’s a lot of people that do very sustainable agriculture that cannot afford to get organic licensing, so they have to be also respected a lot. And we use a lot of them. So in the process of doing this, and I want to leave a legacy behind, I have created a little company called Got2HavPie.

TM: I’m so glad that you brought that up. That was my next question.

MH: Yeah, Got2HavPie came upon [about] because my boys always said, since they were little, “Mom, we’ve got to have pie.” So when I came to [unclear] company, I’d say, “Got to have pie,” because a lot of people today, at least three generations, don’t even know how to make a pie. They don’t have the time, they don’t know how to make the piecrust, whatever.

TM: It’s a labor of love.

MH: It’s a labor of love, and you put your love in it. What is wrong with that? Oh no, they can’t do that. So I said, okay, well, I’ll make the piecrust—so that will be the first step. I’m not going to make pie but I’ll make the piecrust. So we developed the piecrust. And I’m training two, three people to run the company. And it’s going to be their company by the end of this year—and I’m going to give it to them. Just like it’s my legacy, just take it and run with it.

And you know, it’s like a startup company, it’s a little difficult to get going. We started with organic butter, and that’s becoming very difficult to get, as we all know. There’s so much demand on organic, and I think it’s a great problem. But we’re using all local ingredients, and it supports the farmer, the producer, and the industry around us. It gives employment to the local because we live in an area where we’re dying for employment. Of course, you know, we have a competition, which is the conventional pie crust. But I think my goal is to [unclear] teach to have choices. I am not going to make the choices for you. You have to make your choices. I’m giving you the choices so you can have a good one, a healthy aone, or you can have one that just sends you to the hospital. You have to make that choice.

(23:13)

You know, there’s always something to do. And I love the way the food connects. I mean, when I see people out all the time, it doesn’t matter, and the noise around the family when they’re eating, and all the screaming and arguing and bouncing back and forth—that is not the way to communicate. You have to communion around the table at home. And that’s my last goal. My goal is to just create a lot more of that, and that comfort of doing that.

TM: I am so, so happy to hear that, because I grew up—I’m the fifth of eight in a big family, and we had dinner together every night. My mom always cooked from scratch, and of course we had a garden, and so on. And you know, we’re losing that now. I read a fact that the millennials, this new generation of young folks born in and around the century, are losing the ability to cook. They also are not traditionalists. They are throwing out the traditions. And certainly one tradition that I think is sad to lose is what happened at the family table and the dinner. And so having the excuse to bring that back in your work around trying to get people to bring it back is certainly so needed and so wonderful.

MH: Yeah, and I think, Theresa, you are also mentioning that it was a way to communicate within the villages, you know. It was around the table that you got news. We didn’t have newspapers, growing up after the war. My father had a radio; we put it on once a day for him to listen to the news. So everything happened, we gathered together and play[ed] music.

TM: News and gossip!

MH: Yeah, music, food, and yeah, it’s called gossip now, but in those days that’s how news went from one village to another. And you knew someone passed away, was not feeling well, someone needed clothes. You know, that’s how the news went around. And I’m not saying we have to go back to that, but we certainly can still do that. I mean, Philip and I live this way in Wheatland County, [[Town of Wheatland, Vernon County?]] in Victory, and we have dinner. We have people that stop by and bring news from down in the valley. And we share—and sharing is not something that we are used to. And it all goes back to the early 1970s when I first moved to the United States. The microwave, the TV dinners, all those. When I saw that in New York City grocery stores, I said, oh my god, are we in trouble!

TM: Well, you know, twenty-five percent of the meals now are eaten in a car, for a majority of Americans, probably on their way to work.

MH: Well that’s a lot of—yeah, well that’s the difference between fast food and slow food. The slow food movement took off because of that. That’s another way of educating. But of course that’s international, the slow food movement. And people ask me what it is. Well, it’s slow versus fast, get it? Slow growing, slow eating, slow producing, versus (imitating rapid eating).

TM: You know, Monique, I think it’s so interesting that here we are in this little corner of the world, and here I have, sitting here, someone who actually knows Julia Child—I think I’m going to try and get your autograph after this—and Jacques Pepin and all these other chefs. And I’m assuming that you are very comfortable here in that this is a little bit like Brittany. How do you feel you’re doing as far as bringing a little bit of Brittany here to this corner of the world?

MH: It started out very early, because you see, big urban, like Paris and places like that, they don’t need—they’ve got lots of educators. There’s lots of people out there. I always wanted to reach out to a small town. When my book came out, by the publisher in New York, Henry Holt, they were surprised to hear that I was willing to drive throughout the United States and promote my book to all the small towns. Because those small towns, they don’t look at my friend Jacque Pepin to come down; Julia Child is not going to go there. Someone needs to go to them.

So being here in this little corner, I feel like I bring something much bigger to a lot of people who really are very thirsty for things that happen in a big city that they wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s a big reward to myself. I go to sleep at night feeling wonderful that today, every day in my life, I have made some changes to someone. I don’t ever go to bed unless I don’t reach out to somebody.

And it’s wonderful because, like Julia and I, through all the conversation we had, after all the many years I’ve known her, it was always her vision too. But she was very big, she was, you know, she was a big figure. And that was people looked up to her. But she needed Angel(?) and her to really continue in the same philosophy. I mean, look how she learned how to cook. She barely knew how to cook a hot dog. But she was exposed to good food in Paris, and that was the end of her. That was the beginning of her, let’s put it that way. And she peeled off the old Julia Child, and she was happy to talk about it. She was a very great figure, but personally she was warm, beautiful, and having tea with her was so delightful. She was one-on-one, too, and you know, she was wonderful.

TM: I do want our listeners, to remind them that Monique has this wonderful book out called Cooking with the Seasons: A Year in My Kitchen.

MH: Thank you.

TM: Thank you so much for being our guest.

MH: Oh, what a pleasure!

TM: And I look forward to our next conversation, because I see that we have a lot more to talk about!

MH: Oh yeah, thanks a lot.

TM: I want to thank Monique for her vision, for her ability to get so many things done, but mostly for inspiring me, and she has inspired so many others.

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