A new memoir by Fanny Singer, titled Always Home, tells the story of growing up the daughter of Alice Waters, the farm-to-table pioneer who opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971 and became America’s most revered “restauratrice”. That’s the term Waters uses to signal her pride in being a woman in a traditionally male role. The book interweaves recipes and stories, and feels timely for reasons other than its title because it exalts food as a means of conjuring up people and places that may be out of reach.
One of the book’s great pleasures is seeing how Waters’ revolutionary approach to food – she advocated sustainable, seasonable produce long before it was fashionable – impacted Singer as a child. Parents might marvel at the way Waters trained her daughter’s palate. “I was invited to tell her that something was too salty or too bitter, and to cultivate a sense of autonomy in my likes and dislikes,” Singer writes. “Dissecting my feelings about a given food into its constituent parts paradoxically had the effect of making me like almost everything.”
As a pre-schooler, Singer’s favourite snack was “a bowlful of freshly shelled lightly steamed peas” crowned with butter. Her middle-school lunchbox, which warrants a whole chapter, contained salad with anchovy vinaigrette, garlic bread made from levain toast rubbed with olive oil and garlic, a “macédoine” (what we might call fruit salad), and a herby chicken paillard sandwich with homemade aioli. Waters also included a nosegay of scented flowers.
Singer, now 36, is aware of how impossibly romantic her mother might seem. She describes an event Waters catered at the governor of California’s mansion, where she insisted on starting a fire in the disused decorative fireplace to grill bread for bruschetta. In her defence, her efforts meant that guests arrived to an “elemental perfume” of woodsmoke and grilling bread that transformed the evening. In the early 1980s, Waters had a brick hearth built in the family dining room and most of Singer’s meals growing up were cooked over fire. No small undertaking. Singer gives her mother’s recipe for “Egg Fried in a Spoon in a Fireplace”, which I doubt many readers will replicate. But who cares? The idea is intoxicating.
Throughout Singer writes exquisitely, rendering details such as the “creepy epidermal film” on overcooked milk, the “marigold-hued liquid centre” of an egg. She recalls the task of handling salt-packed anchovies as a kitchen hand at Chez Panisse and her “Lady Macbethian effort to scrub my hands free of the odour”. Her gift is put to good use capturing the “rich sensory world” of her mother’s restaurant, where as a child she would seek out “the barely sweet, gummy-textured rounds of uncooked galette dough” in the walk-in refrigerator and “pinch off a buttery mouthful” to eat silently in the cold.
Most evocative are her accounts of Provence, where the family summered every year. At meals she enjoyed with friends on terraces shaded by grapevines, they would feast on grilled mussels, fish soup with Provençal rouille (an aioli with breadcrumbs and poached fish liver), gigot d’agneau à la ficelle (a fire-cooked leg of lamb) and buckwheat tarte au citron. Singer writes about the salad Niçoises she makes back in California using charred red peppers and “an assertive, garlicky dressing” to evoke her friends in Nice and “the aridity of [its] southern summer”. That’s the real beauty of food. The right dish will transport you.
Always Home: a Daughter’s Recipes and Stories by Fanny Singer is published by Seven Dials, £25.
Five cookbooks by foodie families
From Michelin dynasties to kitchen chefs, these recipes are uniquely related, says Tim Auld
Jessie & Lennie Ware Singer-songwriter Jessie Ware and her mother Lennie launched the Table Manners podcast in 2017. Stirring together “family, food and the art of a good chit-chat”, it has featured Ed Sheeran, Nigella Lawson and Sandi Toksvig, and is now in a fourth season. Table Manners: The Cookbook by Jessie and Lennie Ware (Penguin, £15.99).
Pierre & Michel Troisgros Voted the world’s top chef by his peers in 2017, Michel Troisgros is the third generation of his family to run a restaurant near the banks of the Loire. His father Pierre and uncle Jean won three Michelin stars for their nouvelle cuisine at Maison Troisgros. Now 8km away in Ouches, Michel’s restaurant Le Bois Sans Feuilles serves French cuisine combining Italian and Japanese influences. Cuisine de Famille Chez Les Troisgros by Pierre and Michel Troisgros (Flammarion, 2006).
Jean-Georges & Cédric Vongerichten Famous for his southeast Asian-French fusion cuisine, Jean-Georges Vongerichten now has more than three dozen restaurants around the world. His father wanted him to be an engineer. He wanted his son Cédric to be a doctor. Cédric now runs three of his father’s restaurants and has his own, Wayan, in Nolita. A Life in 12 Recipes by Jean-Georges Vongerichten (WW Norton, £17.99).
Gino Santin & Laura Santtini What unites Tom Cruise, Lady Thatcher, Frank Sinatra and Dominic Cummings? They’ve all twirled spaghetti in Santini, the classic Italian restaurant in Belgravia, opened in 1984 by Gino Santin, a hotelier from the Veneto. His first restaurant, Gino’s, gave the capital an early glimpse of what Italian food could be like in the late 1960s. Santini is now run by his daughter Laura, a cookery writer and self-styled “umami expert”. La Cucina Veneziana by Gino Santin (Prentice Hall Direct, 1989).
Albert Roux & Michel Roux Jr Albert and his brother, the late Michel Roux Sr, opened Le Gavroche in Mayfair in 1981. It went on to become the first UK restaurant with three Michelin stars. Among those trained there were Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffmann – and Albert’s son Michel Roux Jr, who took the helm on his father’s retirement in 1993. Roux Jr published his memoir, A Life in the Kitchen, in 2009 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).