Olney was born in Marathon, Iowa. He lived in a house above the village of Solliès-Toucas in Provence, France, for most of his adult life, where he wrote many classic and influential cookbooks of French country cooking. He had first moved to France in 1951, to Paris, where he was close friends with (and painted many of) the American and English bohemian expatriate set, including James Baldwin, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, painter John Craxton, poet John Ashbery, and composer Ned Rorem.
His deep knowledge of traditional classic French food and wine got him a job writing a column entitled Un Américain (gourmand) à Paris for the journal Cuisine et Vins de France beginning in 1962. After The French Menu Cookbook was published in English in 1970, his then-revolutionary approach of seasonal menus and close attention to wine pairings began to attract notice in Britain and America. By the time he wrote Simple French Food in 1974, he was one of the most important food writers of the era, with a huge impact on nouvelle cuisine and California cuisine.
Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and Kermit Lynch, the well-known Berkeley wine writer and retailer, were both disciples. He introduced Lynch to the French wine growers who were to lead him to his new career, before he even had his first wine shop, including Lucien and Lulu Peyraud of Domaine Tempier, who were then re-establishing the Bandol AOC as a vineyard area of the first rank. James Beard was an important American mentor, and Olney, in the midst of his career, taught a series of cooking classes in Beard's West Village apartment. Despite this, Olney, in a memoir, presents a mixed picture of Beard's character.
From 1977 to 1982, Olney edited the 28-volume Time-Life book series The Good Cook. By the time of his death, from heart failure, in addition to the Time-Life set he had written many of his own brilliant, idiosyncratic, poetic books about food and wine. His last book, Reflexions, a memoir, was published posthumously. Olney died aged 72 in Solliès-Toucas, France.
The Observer Food Monthly panel of chefs, cooks, writers and restaurateurs elected The French Menu Cookbook as their favourite cookbook in early 2010, but were saddened that it was very difficult to find. Since then the book has been republished.
Reflexions by Richard Olney
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Ibooks, Inc. (September 1, 2005)
This book begins in New York in 1951 where Olney, a struggling artist, waited tables in Greenwich Village, then moves to Paris and weaves a magical description of food that becomes so real--as if you were actually there with Olney. It is a long-awaited story of the man who brought the simplicity of French cooking to the United States, and a statement about one of the finest and most important food professionals in the world.
Simple French Food by Richard Olney
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Wiley (June 2, 1992)
Amazon: Simple French Food
"For twenty years Richard Olney's Simple French Food has been one of my greatest sources of inspiration for cooking at Chez Panisse." —Alice Waters
"I know this book almost by heart. It is a classic of honest French cooking and good writing. Buy it, read it, eat it." —Lydie Marshall
"I need this new edition badly because Simple French Food is the most dog-eared, falling-apart book in my library. Here it is newly bound to enrich one's life." —Kermit Lynch, author of Adventures on the Wine Route
"Simple French Food has the most marvelous French food to appear in print since Elisabeth David's French Provincial Cooking.... The book's greatest virtue is that the author...really teaches you to cook French in a way I've never seen before. Here you acquire the methods, the tour de main, the tricks that are the heart and essence of French food, unforgettable once acquired in this book because of their logical, well-explained presentation." —Nika Hazelton, The New York Times
"I am unable to find an ad equate adjective to express my enthusiasm.... I find Simple French Food marvelous. I have never read a book on French cuisine that has so excited and absorbed me." —Simone Beck
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