French chef Jean-Pierre Moullé ran the kitchen at Berkley landmark Chez Panisse for more than 30 years until his retirement in 2012. His wife, Denise Lurton Moullé, was born into the Lurton family wine-making empire in Bordeaux, which led to her career in wine distribution and now a business leading wine tours through France. Together, they’ve written and produced French Roots: Two Cooks, Two Countries, and the Beautiful Food Along the Way. An intimate guide to living the good life, French Roots is part autobiography with stories of their childhood in France and the Bay Area in the 70s, and part recipe book highlighting old world French dishes alongside simple California cuisine inspired by the kitchen at Chez Panisse. We talk with the Moullés about choosing the right wine for your menu, living with the rhythm of the seasons and Chez Panisse; plus, they share their recipes for Comté Cheese Soufflé and Leek Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette.
AndrewZimmern.com: What drew you both to Berkeley in the 70s?
Jean-Pierre & Denise Moullé: We both came with our backpacks looking for a different life. We come from respected French families, where we felt prisoners of rules and traditions. Berkeley in the 70s offered us the freedom we wanted to experience.
AZ.com: How did you interpret California cuisine at the time? Are there similarities between rural French food and the cuisine you cooked at Chez Panisse?
JPM: California cuisine is a Mediterranean cuisine. The climate is similar to the south of France, Italy, and Spain. The basic ingredients are the same: garlic, herbs, olive oil… It’s very simple cuisine compared to the more elaborate ones in colder climates like Alsace, Champagne, and Normandy.
When I first came to Chez Panisse, it was the very beginning of California cuisine. It did not even exist. The cooking was French and slowly we started using local ingredients keeping the French techniques.
AZ.com: How did working at Chez Panisse for 40 years affect your own cooking style?
JPM: It obliged me to simplify, to go back to the untouched beauty of the ingredients.
AZ.com: Denise, what was it like growing up in a wine making family?
DM: At that time, it was very different from now. In the 50s and 60s, you could not survive just making wine because there was no money to buy wine after the war. The economy in France was very disrupted. The vineyards had been kind of abandoned because the men were at war. It took many years to restore agriculture. I grew up in a farm with several crops, cows, chickens, rabbits… We ate what we grew, never went to a store, except sometimes to the local farmers market. Now, it is a very respected winery. We own several properties. We produce only wines. We entertain clients from all over the world. It is very different from my childhood. But, we still live with the rhythms of the seasons, the excitement of harvest… It gave me a deep sense that our livelihood and well-being depends on Nature’s bounty.
AZ.com: When you came to the United States, what was the wine market like?
DM: The wine market in the late 70s was completely different from now. There were very few California wines. The majority of the wines were imports from France. There still was a strong admiration and respect for France wines. The business was friendly. We shared opinions and helped each other. It was not competitive and cut-throat like now. The California wineries were not fancy like now. I tasted samples in the kitchens of the producers. Now they have sales staff, beautiful elaborate tasting rooms… It was more like in France, down to earth and convivial.
AZ.com: What are a few good tips or resources for choosing the right wine for your menu?
DM: It depends on your personal taste and the food you are serving. But as I say in the book, there are too many rules. Traditionally, white wines are served with fish, lighter meats such as pork, poultry, and eggs, while reds go with cheese, red meats, and some game. But it doesn’t always work this way. To my mind it’s more useful to think about regional wine accompanied by traditional dishes of the region. Take Alsatian Gewürztraminer. It goes beautifully with a classic Alsatian dish, quiche: the richness cuts the taste of the egg yolk. Similarly, no other wine would fit as well as an Alsatian Gewürztraminer or Riesling with choucroute, another dish famous in the region, because its sweetness stands up to the potent fermented cabbage and sausage. In Bordeaux, where red wines dominate, the gastronomy is based on duck, lamb, and steaks. Unsurprisingly, the typical Bordeaux red goes very well with these heavier meats. And white wines from the Loire Valley, including Vouvray, Sancerre, or Pouilly, perfectly complement the famous fresh Loire goat cheeses, such as Sainte-Maure.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JPM & DM: There is not much in our small fridge. White and rosé wines for sure. Butter, milk, cream, yoghurt. We keep fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and mustards at room temperature in a cool place. Refrigeration changes the tastes of things. We eat what we grow or what we canned when we have too much produce from the garden.
SNEAK PEEK: Get their recipes for Comté Cheese Soufflé & Leek Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette from their new book French Roots.
About Jean-Pierre and Denise Moullé
Jean-Pierre and Denise Moullé met on a street corner in Berkeley, California, in 1980; six months later they were married. French Roots is the story of their lives told through the food they cook—beginning with the dishes of old-world France, the couple’s birthplace, and focusing on the simple, pared-down preparations of French food common in the postwar period. The story then travels to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, where Jean-Pierre was appointed executive chef at Chez Panisse when California cuisine was just emerging as a distinctive and important style, and where Denise began importing French wine. Finally, the journey follows the couple to their homes in Sonoma, California, and Bordeaux to revisit the classic dishes of the Moullés’ native country and hone the forgotten skills of foraging, hunting, and preserving.
Exquisitely written, with recipes that are innovative and timeless, insights on cooking and thinking like a chef, and an insider’s guide to the wines of Bordeaux, French Roots is much more than a cookbook—it’s a guide to living the good life.
Until his retirement in April 2012, JEAN-PIERRE MOULLÉ was the executive chef at Chez Panisse, where he began working in 1975. DENISE MOULLÉ comes from the Bordeaux wine-making empire of the Lurton family. She worked as a wine distributor in California for many years before starting Two Bordelais in 1987, which offers guided tours through France.