Madeleine Kamman, the renowned French chef, teacher, and author, passed away earlier this summer at her home in Middlebury, Vermont. She was 87 years old.
Since the early '70s, Kamman taught Americans the intricacies of French food with an eye for tradition and precision. Much of her work encouraged women to cook with a rigor associated mainly with male chefs at the time. "If I had been a man with a great hat on my head,” she famously said, “I could have passed myself as a ‘great chef so-and-so’ and nobody would have batted an eye."
Her 1976 book When French Women Cook chronicled the contributions of women to French cuisine. She was praised for her exactitude in the kitchen and sensibility around food and taste, which inspired a multitude of emerging chefs, home cooks, and food writers. We spoke to some of them today to learn how the late Kamman influenced, and continues to influence, their work today.
When I was living in France and writing my first cookbook, The Cook and the Gardener, I was deeply influenced by Madeleine Kamman's When French Women Cook. Up until I came across her book, all authoritative French cooking came from men, and chefs specifically. Their cooking was complicated and rigid. In Kamman's book, I found a style of cooking that spoke to me; it felt more soulful and at ease, and as I was writing a book about seasonal cooking, a style that was more in touch with simple ingredients that were treated with respect. When French Women Cook was also a fascinating book to read, a peek into a world of cooks that no one knew about—talented, determined women who I found inspiring. I just looked back at my book and in it, I noted that Kamman taught me how to cook Brussels sprouts—quickly over high heat, and with intense flavors. Two of the recipes I included were adapted from When French Women Cook—Brussels Sprouts Glazed with Walnut Oil and Red Wine, and Spiced Brussels Sprouts and Apples.
Madeleine Kamman championed cuisine de femmes. Her memoir, When French Women Cook, first published in 1976, dedicated eight chapters to the lives of resilient women from various regions of France who left an indelible impression on her own culinary competence: a frugal great-grandmother, Mimi Chérie, who called her “Treasure” and conveyed a love for the buttery snails of cuisine de misère, or cooking something from nothing. A distant cousin named Victoire from Auvergne, who mostly spoke in the ancient Occitan tongue, took Kamman to hunt for bolete mushrooms, and hid resistance fighters in her barn during the Occupation. And Loetitia, from Brittany, who taught her how to tell a female lobster from a male.
In the introduction, Kamman wrote: “Where are you, my France, where women cooked…with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience? Where are you, my France?” Like M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Paula Wolfert, or Diana Kennedy, she gave us role models, not just recipes. Kamman made me want to be like one of these women, and for that, Madame Treasure, I say merci beaucoup.
Madeleine Kamman has been my culinary hero since 1997, when I first read The Making of a Cook—cover to cover. The thing is a real doorstopper, about 1000 pages, but that makes sense, because she’s the most detailed cookbook author I’ve ever known. “Reduce the cream by one-third,” an entire chapter devoted to “60/40 jams versus 50/50 jams,” and that kind of thing. I think what I liked most about her writing was her barely-disguised bossiness. She didn’t just suggest you truss the chicken her way; something about her tone dared you to do it differently. And I liked that. It was the same tone my mom and grandma both used with me in the kitchen. I responded to that kind of fervency. Because, sure, we all like to think that the details don’t matter, and that the dish will turn out pretty well as not if you skip a few steps, but those weren’t the kinds of meals that Madeleine Kamman cooked. Her food—I am sure—was absolutely slamming.
I happened to do a lot of research on Madeleine Kamman's career when I featured her Butterscotch Creams earlier this summer—she was a fascinating person, and a brilliant chef and teacher. I was struck by how many articles about her (in the 1980s and 90s, I think) focused on her "difficult" personality as a reason she didn't achieve the same wide success as some of her peers, like Julia Child—perhaps it goes without saying that you'd never see that reasoning suggested for a male chef, and quite likely the opposite would be true.
I'm glad that narrative has evolved in more recent profiles of her, and I loved that she didn't seem to ever let that perception change her or keep her from expecting the highest standards and respect in the kitchen. (That story about her turning Paul Bocuse's picture upside-down to protest him saying women belonged in bed instead of the kitchen is pretty wonderful.)
“Madeleine Kamman,” Marian Burros wrote in 1993 in The New York Times, “is either the most brilliant, gifted, warm-hearted cooking teacher in America or a brutally frank, ungenerous, obsessive perfectionist.” American food writers didn’t know what to make of Kamman, from the moment in 1968 she crashed the Times in a searing letter to its food editor, Craig Claiborne, for publishing what she considered a supremely idiotic and inauthentic recipe for snails provençale. We Americans thought we knew French food. Certainly we thought we knew the ultimate French woman cook in Julia, with her hearty assurances and troupe-leader bravado.
But Julia was a Californian, and Kamman was a feminist, someone who fought for the legacy of women cooks in France and wasn’t afraid to be cast as a bitch for standing her ground. That’s why I loved her from the first time I saw her jacket photo in my 1976 copy of When French Women Cook, which Kamman called her “feminist manifesto.” She’s posed in a ribbed turtleneck, with a broad, frank smile, a slight cleft in her chin, and no makeup. It’s a face that made me feel what Kamman described as the hands of vanished women cooks, “stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience.” Burros’s line needed a rewrite: Kamman was an obsessive perfectionist, brilliant, gifted, generous, and brutally warm-hearted.
What has Madeleine Kamman taught you about cooking? Please share your remembrances in the comments below.