Marie-Odile Briet & Hervé Tullet

1st February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

1st February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Marie-Odile Briet and her husband Hervé Tullet both travel extensively for their work. She is a well-regarded French journalist who writes about food trends at home and abroad. He is an award-winning illustrator whose children’s books are popular all over the world[footnote]His ingenious book Press Here is a New York Times bestseller. Since our visit, Yousef and I have bought six copies of the book between us for nephews, nieces, godchildren etc: it’s just great [/footnote]. Whenever possible, they make their schedules overlap: Marie recently joined Hervé on trips to Japan and Sicily. Instead of seeing the obvious sites, they tend to spend their time scouring markets and talking to local people about food.

You can tell they are well-travelled by a glance around their home in Montmartre, where they’ve lived for 17 years[footnote]They’re moving to New York in 2015 [/footnote]. A beautiful apartment over several floors opening onto a courtyard with a fig tree, it is full of souvenirs from their journeys: plates from Japan and China, a wooden bawo board from Malawi. Marie lets us taste black sesame tahini picked up on a recent trip to Israel and shows us assorted meats from a pig slaughter she attended in the south of France. Their love of food and foreign countries is even reflected in how they name their pets: after Sushi and Maki, their current cat is called Bento.

When we visit, they are preparing what Marie warned would be “a light lunch” but is in fact a very substantial three-course meal. Hervé marinates some mozzarella for the starter and then settles down in the courtyard with a glass of wine. Marie occasionally darts into the kitchen to keep an eye on her main course. Two of their three kids wander in and out, eyeing up the food. Hervé takes us on a tour of the paint-splattered studio at the front of the building where he does his work. Then we settle down to a memorable lunch under the fig tree.

Continued below...

How did you become a children’s author?

Hervé: A long time ago I was an art director in advertising. Then I became an illustrator, working for magazines and so on. Then I began to create my own children’s books. I was never very good at drawing – I’m more of a thinker than a drawer – so I developed a kind of style based on scribbles, of which I’m now a kind of master. I can do it perfectly in many different ways [laughs].

It sounds like a nice job to have.

Hervé: It is, especially now that I’m quite well known. I travel a lot – I’m going to the US next Monday for a big promotional tour. I do performances in museums for 400 people where I lead everybody with a megaphone. It’s a good evolution from the books – to explain, to convey, to perform.

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Do you work from home?

Hervé: I’ve got a studio just here, on the street. But now I’m just doing a book or two per year, so when I’m not travelling I try to rest.

If you’re at home a lot, does that mean you cook a lot?

Hervé: Yes… The relationship with my wife is: she’s the leader, because it’s her field and she’s more aware of what’s going on. She tries new things at home. I don’t really try – I am a lazy guy.

Is this true?

Marie-Odile: Yes. He’s lazy but efficient. This is the same in his work. It’s very impressive. I’m still working out what I’m going to cook and he’s already finished [laughs].
Hervé: I love to slow-cook, which means that you put something in the oven and you wait for two, four, six, eight hours, and during this time you can read a book or go for a swim. This is something I really like – slowing down. It’s very good usually.
Marie-Odile: Yes.

Tell me about your job.

Marie-Odile: I’m a freelance journalist now but for 10 years I was editor-in-chief for a women’s magazine called Biba. And then I participated in the launching of a magazine called Regal. Our gastronomy magazines in France are not very good; Regal, when it launched, was the only one that had a lot of reportage. It was a beautiful magazine. They would go to the salon d’agriculture and photograph cattle or pigs with a fashion photographer.

He’s lazy but efficient… I’m still working out what I’m going to cook and he’s already finished

How long did it last?

Marie-Odile: Three years. It was doing quite well, but the publisher wanted more money. Afterwards I became a freelancer and worked for l’Express Style ,which is a supplement of a news magazine. I’ve been working for lifestyle magazines like Marie Claire Maison. I write a lot about food trends: for example, why is an ingredient you never see, such as kale, suddenly everywhere?

Do you write exclusively about food?

Marie-Odile: No, I write travel pieces as well, but I’ll always combine it with food. For instance I went to Peru for Marie Claire Maison and tried a lot of ceviche – it’s nice to try a fish that you’ve never seen before and you know you’ll never try again. I did something on Brighton recently – it’s much cheaper than a long weekend in London and it has good restaurants. I’ve been writing on the London food markets: Maltby Street. Broadway Market. London is so expensive, so it’s good to do what Londoners do and go to the market for lunch.

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Do you ever travel together?

Hervé: Sometimes she joins me when I’m working in one place for a period of time.
Marie-Odile: This year we’ve been travelling together a lot and having great food experiences: Sicily, Japan, Israel. We try always to bring back some food or some habits. In Israel, a chef told me how to prepare the tahini when you buy it – you have to put some water in it. I didn’t know that.
Hervé: In Sicily, instead of going to museums, we just went to markets. Markets are where you find the real life.

Have you always been interested in food? Was it important at home?

Marie-Odile: Yes I think so. It was the only means of communication with my parents. My father had a flour mill, making flour and bread and semolina. My mother was a stay-at-home mother so she was a good cook.

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Where did you grow up?

Marie-Odile: In the north of France, so lots of moules frites. Also very good fish. My father used to catch sea bass, mackerel. He used to fish so much that the dog had to eat them. I ate things in my childhood that I know I will never eat again. Certain types of game… picassine.

What’s that?

Marie-Odile: A very small bird they shoot on the ponds.
Hervé: Snipe.
Marie-Odile: I left home to live in Lille when I was 16 and I was obliged to cook for myself. The first things I tried to cook were very traditional dishes from the north of France, like rabbit with prunes. And things with beer. I remember cooking rabbit for a lot of people and I put it in the microwave on a Pyrex dish and it just exploded. [laughs] I get distracted sometimes.
Hervé: What are you telling this guy? You are perfect!
Marie-Odile: Do you remember, when we were in rue le Pic and we made a pot-au-feu and it stayed open all night? [laughs] It’s funny to try to remember your failures.

Hervé, have you always been interested in food?

Hervé: No. My parents had three or four recipes – rabbit or chicken. Very repetitive. Which means that after 50 years, my mother is like a Japanese master with apple pie. But no, my main memory about food is that once a year, at Easter, we would go to a restaurant – always the same restaurant – and order the most expensive things on the menu. Later, when I began to work, I used to spend my money in good restaurants, especially very traditional places. We were young and quite wealthy because of advertising, with money to spend, and we liked being surrounded by older people. Perhaps we thought we could learn the traditions from them.

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Did you start cooking properly when you met Marie-Odile?

Hervé: Yes. When we met, we became very fond of steam cooking. We bought a book and a steamer and learned to cook like this. It’s a very good way to learn, because you can’t fail and you learn to look at the product. We steamed everything back then, every dish. We were crazy about steaming.

What are your strengths as cooks now?

Hervé: I love to cook fish. It’s very simple but you feel how it must be cooked. I have a good intuition for that.
Marie-Odile: He talks to the fish… and the fish answers.
Hervé: My main despair is a squid. It’s my favourite but I always…
Marie-Odile: He find very tricky. It’s a favourite for the whole family, because we spent a lot of summers in Andalusia and the Spanish cook it perfectly.
Hervé: I try often, but there’s always a bit of frustration – I know it could be much better than I make it.
Marie-Odile: I like to cook with leftovers. For instance I would do a big beef roast, a pot-au-feu, and then you get four meals out of it. I might transform it into something more Japanese – a soup.

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Is your style of cooking different from his?

Marie-Odile: Oh yes probably. Oop – I tend to forget what I left on the fire [she runs into the kitchen, then returns a moment later]. It’s okay.

Do you plan the week ahead or make it up on the day?

Marie-Odile: No, we just improvise. I’ll go to the market. We’re very lucky because we’re both freelance, so we’re not obliged to buy food on the weekends. But our big thing is to bring back food from Normandy.

When we met, we became very fond of steam cooking. It’s a good way to learn but we steamed everything. We were crazy about steaming

You have a house there?

Marie-Odile: Yes. Just in front of Jersey. So we get good meat and great fish and can also bring oysters back during the winter. We didn’t know this, but when you buy oysters you can keep them for two or three weeks. So our freezer is full of fish and meat. If I go to the organic market in Paris, I could spend €35 and only get enough food for one day. At the organic farm in Normandy, I can get veg and fruit for a whole week with the same amount. Each time we leave, we go to the butcher nearby – he prepares things like osso bucco. In Paris you always have to order it.
Hervé: And we do not eat that much meat in Paris, compared to Normandy, because the butcher there is better and we have a barbeque. In Paris we try to eat fish more.

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Is Paris an exciting place to eat out?

Hervé: I think that Marie will tell you that we are less and less astonished by the restaurants here.
Marie-Odile: Yes [sighs]. It’s difficult to be surprised.
Hervé: Also we are not very good at planning. There are restaurants we would like to go to but it’s very difficult to plan to book a table three months ahead and we are a bit lazy.
Marie-Odile: I might do it with my girlfriends, I have a supper club with my friend Laura Zavan, an Italian cook and author, and some friends also in the same field, so we would plan one table a month. It’s to see what’s going on. But I like to try new places abroad, it’s more interesting to me. There are very good chefs in Paris but there are also a lot of people copying each other.

On The Menu

Lunch with Marie-Odile and Hervé
Paris, October 2014

To eat:

Fig and mozzarella salad (recipe)
Steamed cod with sauce vierge (recipe)
Rice pudding made with raw milk

To drink:

White wine

You see the same dishes again and again?

Marie-Odile: Yes, and the same design. The same lightbulbs.

How often do you cook at home?

Marie-Odile: We do at least four nights cooking at home and we’ll have take-away sushi once a week. We also make lunch at home, and now our 14-year-old daughter doesn’t want to eat school so she comes back for lunch three times a week. It can be complicated to feed teenagers. My daughter decided a couple of months ago that she wanted to become a vegetarian. But the problem is that she doesn’t like vegetables.

Do your children share your enthusiasm for food?

Hervé: It’s always a topic at home: what are we going to eat tonight? But sometimes they get really fed up – they think it takes up too much time.
Marie-Odile: “We don’t want to eat detox food, we want big steaks.”
Hervé: Sometimes we ask each other: “If you were on a desert island, what would you want to eat?” They say spare ribs.
Marie-Odile: The good part is when they call you and ask, “How do you make this?” That’s great – then you know you’ve done something right.

For more info on Hervé’s work, press here

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Posted 1st February 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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