This 70-Year-Old French Woman Has All The Food Secrets

Photo: Courtesy of Harald Gottschalk.
Poised with one leg casually draped over the other, Francine Halasz sips Champagne from a crystal flute. It’s lunchtime at her house on the Cote D’Azur, and although she’s been fretting over the three-course meal she is about to serve for days now, she’s impeccable in this moment. Inhaling the ripe scent of a grapevine on her veranda, she scans the rolling green hills and stucco houses. Settling on the Mediterranean Sea, the same azure blue as her eyes, Halasz smiles reassuringly.

The first course is a blissfully fluffy terrine of Roma tomatoes crushed with zucchini flowers, mint, agar-agar, Tabasco and a pinch of sugar. Halasz takes one of the eight seats around an oval table, switching from Champagne to white wine.

“A must,” she says in French, “for both the cooking and the eating,” and the first of many simple, soothsaying lessons she’s understood throughout her seven decades in the kitchen.

The lady Halasz, now in her golden years, was once a journalist for Pam, an advertising paper in France. When her husband Jean-Pierre Halasz sold the publication, the pair, who’ve been married for 50 years, settled down and had a family. One of her children, Laurent, is the founder and part owner of Fig & Olive, which boasts seven restaurants throughout the United States. His mother — and her cooking — served as his early and singular inspiration.

The French Riviera, a place frequented throughout history by artists and writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso, exudes an effortless elegance. Halasz capitalizes on that grace with precise planning and execution.

She relies upon the freshest ingredients to create her food, commonplace in today’s thinking but a revelation 40 years ago. For just as many decades, Halasz has made daily trips to different local markets. More often than not, she’ll call ahead to reserve a particular item. Bread one day, meat another, fish later in the week, not to mention a twice-weekly sojourn with her canvas and straw bags and wooden crates to the Cannes market, a four-mile jaunt down the hill.

“You have to respect the ingredients and they will respect you and perform for you,” she says, catching a stray blonde hair and tucking it back into place. “You can never be afraid of simplicity in the kitchen.”
Photo: Courtesy of Harald Gottschalk.

Halasz has been cooking in this style her entire life, which is why the second course of sole en papillote is often referred to by Laurent as a one star Michelin dish. It's sweet and savory, rich yet without dairy; the parchment paper curls away from the fish revealing tender tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, thyme, and fennel bulb, topped with a pinch of saffron and a twist of lemon.

An already accomplished chef within her circle of friends, Halasz has long shared her recipes with those close to her, although she’s been known to omit details or special techniques. “Every chef has their secrets,” her husband says, chuckling softly as he reaches for his flute of Champagne.

For dessert, the exquisitely dressed Halasz serves a cheese and jam plate, not created but certainly curated by her. Her necklace, a string of oversize white balls, gently bounces off her chest as she sets the plate on the freshly pressed white linen tablecloth. The early fall temperatures play off the seasonal jams, the cheeses selected to mirror the light, bright flavors of the fish from the previous course.

Not formally trained as a chef nor versed in following a single recipe to its completion, Halasz loves to experiment in the kitchen. Her caramelized and comfit fennel with a touch of sugar, added to her sea scallop and pine nuts dish, is an enigma to anyone who’s tried it.

Now, for the first time in her 70-year existence, Halasz has made her recipes available to the public in an Assouline-published book entitled Fig & Olive: The Cuisine of the French Riviera. Co-authored with her son Laurent, the cookbook contains four recipes specially named after the lady Halasz.

“This cookbook is much more than a collection of recipes,” Halasz says via email, “it’s a window [into] how we cook, dine, and entertain. As one who rarely follows step-by-step recipes, I believe delicious food stems from the simplicity of ingredients and technique, above all else.”
Read more about what makes Cote d'Azur so special in R29's The Places Every Woman Should Visit In 2016.
Editor's note: Last fall, several Fig & Olive locations were linked to a salmonella outbreak; an investigation into the matter revealed that the New York-based chain uses frozen ingredients in some dishes. Read the official response from the restaurant here.

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