PARIS — She is both teacher and student as we walk among the vendors at her neighborhood market, quizzing the staff at Lorenzo’s about an unfamiliar fish, then turning around and schooling me on the best tomatoes, mozzarella, and a duck confit sausage. Trim and smartly dressed, Patricia Wells could be any one of the Parisians who shop at the outdoor President Wilson market here.
In a way, she is.
Born in Milwaukee, Wells, 67, has spent more than half her life in France, eating and writing about French cuisine, and teaching at the cooking school she runs with her husband, Walter, a former International Herald Tribune editor. She has authored many cookbooks, including her classic “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris,” first published in 1984, and revised now for the first time in 15 years. With its release comes a corresponding app.
Wells had no plans for another revision. “Updating the guide could have become a full-time job and it didn’t give me time to do other things,” she explains. But her husband suggested the app idea and she undertook the challenge. Then, once that was finished, it was logical to revise the book.
By now Wells’s story is familiar to her fans. She arrived in Paris in 1980 with Walter when he was hired at the Tribune. She became the paper’s restaurant critic, established the cooking school, and began to write books — a total of 15 on French cuisine. She won three James Beard awards and was nominated for another three. She was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government for her contribution to French culture.
Over lunch, she talks about the huge changes in the Paris food scene in the last 15 years. Wells remarks on the number of places now open daily, the more casual nature of dining now, and notably the expanded geography of the city. Previously obscure neighborhoods, such as the ninth, 10th, and 18th arrondissements, are now hip and replete with chic culinary addresses. Even pastry, bread, and chocolate shops, traditionally found on every corner, have greatly expanded their numbers and their offerings. Fully three-quarters of the entries in the fifth edition of Wells’s Paris guide are new.
Although she enjoys reaching an audience through her books, teaching remains Wells’s focus, what she loves and what she wants to have time to do. She gives 10 weeklong classes a year, each for seven to 10 students, half the courses held in her Paris apartment in the chic seventh Arrondissement, and the rest at her home in Provence in summer (the cost runs $5,000 for a week). A new black truffle workshop is also available in winter in Provence for $6,000. Without any advertising, her 2014 cooking classes are sold out, as well as some classes in 2015.
Her commitment to sharing both her expertise and the bounty of France is rewarded when she asks her students how they will change their cooking when they get home. Almost all of them reply, “I am going to pay more attention to the quality of the ingredients.”
People often ask her why she doesn’t do a TV show. Her answer is always the same: “I’d rather inspire seven people than 7 million.”
With an app that puts the secrets of Paris at your fingertips, Wells is going to be popping up on more smartphones than she can count.Jill Gibson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.