The Food Network’s effervescent face of modern French fare, Laura Calder, is bringing her continental expertise home to Toronto. The long-time expat and host of French Food at Home, who has been stationed in Paris for the better part of a decade, landed back in her native Canada earlier this year with a not-too-shabby James Beard Foundation Award nomination, a new book, and a mission to update the artery-clogging cream-and-butter concept of French gastronomy.
In 1998, Calder left a soul-sucking desk job and enrolled in chef school in Vancouver. She worked for a time in California before moving to Paris, where she found inspiration for her show and two cookbooks. Almost 10 years after she first embarked on her culinary escapade, she decided it was time for a change. “Toronto’s the centre of Canada,” she says, excited about the new era in dining adventures.
And she’s already hard at work. Calder has noticed a lack of good bread in the city—“Thank God for Thuet!”—and is exploring our food scene to great satisfaction. “I have eaten very well at Nota Bene, and I had the best rabbit I’ve ever eaten at Scaramouche.” Her other picks include Splendido, Loire and lunch at C5. For her upcoming birthday, Calder is heading out with fellow gastronomes Josh Josephson, Henry Less and Jennifer McLagan (author of Fat and Bones) to Via Allegro for pig’s head. Save us the apple.
For the purveyor of homespun options, though, going out is second to eating in. That is why Calder took a place near the St. Lawrence Market, so she could have ready access to fresh ingredients. “I’m there every day,” she says. So far, her top guilty pleasure is cheesecake from the Dnister Ukrainian Store. Her first Hogtown heartbreak? The peameal bacon sandwich: “Everyone told me that I had to have one, so I did, and I don’t get it.”
Though she’s happily making a home in Toronto, memories of France follow the gourmand everywhere. French food has come a long way since the stereotypical triple crème dishes of the 1950s, she explains. Calder’s new book, French Taste, which hits shelves April 18, is all about the Parisian ethos of food. Rather than recipes, the book features essays on how to cook and how to eat, including one on how to pour a glass of water—even the simplest tasks, she explains, need attention. “It’s not about what they eat; it’s about how they eat it,” she says of the elusive quality of good taste native to the city of lights. “A French woman cannot go outside badly dressed, and the French can’t serve icky food in an ugly way.”
None of which is to say that Calder has internalized Champs Élysées snobbery. “Oops,” she says, pausing in conversation. “I’ve got a two-day-old piece of cheese in my handbag.”