How Madeleine Kamman Changed the Way These Food Writers Cook

August 23, 2018

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.

Amanda Hesser, Co-founder of Food52

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.

Shane Mitchell, Food Writer

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.

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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.

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?
Madeleine Kamman

Amy Thielen, Food Writer

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.

A Kamman Classic

Kristen Miglore, Creative Director, Genius

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.)

Like M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Paula Wolfert, or Diana Kennedy, she gave us role models, not just recipes.
Shane Mitchell

John Birdsall, Food Writer

“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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • elenard
  • Mitchell
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    Irma VM
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  • Holly Beernink
    Holly Beernink
Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


elenard December 16, 2019
I was Madeleine's student at Beringer in 1990--I think the first or second class of that particular school. I had 3 classmates and we had class each day in a little cottage on the winery grounds. The first thing she did was give us each a chicken and tell us to cook it using a classic method that she assigned. We were all accomplished cooks and put a lot of effort into it, sweating the details. After we had all tasted each other's dishes, she said, "Well, you are all good cooks but you don't know the first thing about classic technique..." We then reviewed all the basics from Escoffier and spent the next week learning about the migration of cultures and their impacts on each region of the Mediterranean.
I challenged her the next day to a stock contest: who could make the best stock using salmon bones, which are typically disregarded due to their strong flavor and high fat content. My fumet was quite acceptable but it was nothing like Madeleine's. I immediately began to quiz her on how she had accomplished that and in return, she completely reinvented the way that I did stocks, glaces and essences. I think that she liked that I had the chutzpah to challenge her and the honesty to lose with grace. She taught me to match sauces to specific wines by building the structure of the wine into the sauce through a series of refinements and infusions. To this day, I have never seen anyone do anything even close. almost 30 years later, I can still remember the taste of specific dishes that we cooked together.
I continued for a number of years after in fine dining and hotels and I taught all my kitchens to create the base modules the way thatI had learned from Madeleine. I hope in a little way that I have helped to pass on the tradition that she passed to me. I don't think that anyone knows this, but Madeleine told me that all of her sauce technique came from her memories as a little girl watch Prosper Montagne finishing his sauces as she stood on a crate in his kitchen.
Madeleine was brilliant, and a bit bitter. With all of her acclaim, she always felt that she had not been given her due. She was brutally honest and had a razor sharp wit edged with scorn that, I think didn't do her justice and put some people off. I never was on the receiving end but I did see her make snap judgements that fell short of her own standards. Memorably, when she found out that I had gone to La Varenne as a translator and teacher's aide, she told me about her one visit to an open class where they were teaching some basic pastry technique that she already knew. Based on that alone, she dismissed the whole school as not being serious. I knew the chefs there and they were soulful men with deep roots back to the France that she remembered from her childhood. They were profoundly rooted in the traditions of France and irreverent toward the big-headed chefs with their tall white hats--They were in a word, just the kind of fellow cooks that Madeleine could really have enjoyed being around, but she dismissed them on an impression and never looked back. I think that she did that at many junctures in her life and it left her restless and unfulfilled, but she taught me and nurtured me and my career when I needed it and then sort of faded away.
Well Madeleine: Thank you for everything! I hope you have found your peace and that you are sitting on a beautiful stone terrace in the golden light looking over beautiful gardens of food with a piece of literature by your side and a glass of something special at hand
Mitchell August 27, 2018
She was brilliant; when my late mother and I took a course at the Modern Gourmet in Newton Centre we learned a great deal. But to pretend she was not difficult is unrealistic; she could be moody, impatient, and downright unpleasant. She singled out a classmate who is also a personal friend for constant unnecessary criticism when we took our course. As it happens Mrs. Child was my client for.20 years, and was a far more congenial person in every way, as well as being a great chef.
Irma V. August 27, 2018
Chef Madeleine Kamman’s book was one of my first most used and treasured books long before I entered Culinary School and became a profesional chef.
I am quite surprised that I did not hear of her passing until I read your great tribute to her.
She was inspiring and a kindred spirit. I lived with the great sexism in professional kitchen everywhere.
I attended a community college and added her book as one of my text books.
I joined the WCR and had the opportunity to work with some fine women chefs in large and
small restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Thank you Chef Kamman for all I learned from you. RIP.
Irma VM
J August 24, 2018
First, I am so happy to see this article. I was stunned that the cooking world remained silent after death, even after her obit ran in the NYT. I was one of Madeleine's first students at her first cooking school in Lexington, Mass. (yes, the NYT got it wrong: she opened the school in Newton after the Lexington, which was in the basement of a Sherwin-Williams store). I've read every book written by Madeleine (including, of course, my thoroughly marked-up and stained MOAC autographed 1st edition) and every book about or mentioning her. Madeleine was never "difficult"--a word never used about male chefs--but she was demanding, a word frequently used to praise male chefs. If you worked hard and did your homework, you received her rare praise. Her teaching was grounded in concepts: how fully to understand the properties of, for example, butter and flour, and then how they worked together. Technique was essential, but second to the concepts. Madeleine was one of Harold McGee's earliest disciples, and, of course, the science was behind the concepts that were the essence of our training. Her passion was to train professional cooks, and I was never on that track ; however, I'm forever grateful to her for making me the home cook that I am. Over the many decades since I studied with Madeleine, I'm pretty sure that I've made the gravy at every single holiday dinner to which I've ever been invited because, for some reason, gravy seems to strike terror in many home cooks but, of course, I understand the properties of fat and flour, how they work together, and love to make the gravy! RIP, beloved teacher.
Holly B. August 23, 2018
What Madeleine Kamman taught me about cooking could fill a book on technique and ingredients.
I studied with Madeleine Kamman in 1985. Her school was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where we studied, cooked and eventually opened her restaurant, Auberge Madeleine. We were also lucky enough to travel with Madeleine to her beloved home in Annecy, France where we ate at some of her favorite restaurants and held classes for students.
Her love of the history and culture of food, her devotion to discipline in the kitchen, her intolerance toward mediocrity and her women’s approach to cooking were the foundations of her classes.
She was the only person I knew who could make an amazing meal out of whatever was around. She was, in my opinion, the founder of the “Farm to Table” movement. Madeleine loved to talk about the use of “Precious Ingredients” as substitutes for really good honest food. She often said that many high-class restaurants try to disguise food as something else and sell it for $100 a plate. A plate of food made to look like a mountain of lava using precious ingredients from around the world? Not in her kitchen.
Madeleine was authentic. She taught me to be comfortable in the kitchen and work with what you have. We didn’t use all of the latest gadgets, we worked with our hands and created the best food you can imagine. After I graduated from her year-long course, I opened my own personal restaurant in Rhinebeck, New York. I worked hard, made great food, and loved every minute of it. I will always be grateful to Madeleine Kamman for what she taught me. I miss her.
Holly Beernink
Class of 1985
Valerio F. August 23, 2018
Oh, wow! What a beautiful tribute. Thank you so, so much for sharing!