Author, professional chef and teacher Kate Hill has run her beloved farmhouse cooking school — fondly dubbed “Camont” — in the heart of Gascony for over 30 years. We sat down with her to talk about her incredible journey.
As we describe in our Sept/Oct feature on you (p44), you arrived in France from the US at the end of the 1980s. What plans or adventures did you hope to have in this country?
The 80s marked a decade of travel for me, and buying the barge was just meant to be a couple years of swanning around Europe before settling down somewhere. France had a culture and food that stretched my cooking experience. I am still stretching today!
Kate Hill at Camont
Have you always loved to cook? Do you remember a particular dish or culinary moment from your childhood?
Cooking was birthright in my family. A first-generation Italian-American mother and a country-raised farm boy father from Oklahoma, they always made sure there was good food on the table. Soon enough, they opened a restaurant, then another, and eventually, we were all enlisted into the workforce — front and back of the house.
I always loved cooking. I would watch my Dad make chicken and dumplings and my Mom lovingly create the traditional red spaghetti sauce. I also learned a lot from my Italian grandmother whenever she would come to visit.
Making teriyaki beef with my Dad for my Girl Scout troop campout. It was the hit of the evening, and I loved the attention I got!
What do you love about the way that the French cook? How has it influenced and integrated with your style?
While I knew how to cook, I didn’t know anything about ingredients. Traditional French food is ingredient-driven and lets the raw material be the star. It is also relaxed and thoughtful — less flash in the pan and more slow simmering. That’s 100% my style.
The dining table at Camont © Ruth Ribeaucourt
What was your journey to deciding to become a teacher?
Simple! People asked me “How did you make that?” Whether it was a simple vinaigrette, a stew or a flaky pastry crust, I liked to share it. I love being generous with food! And I always had great teachers so that inspired me, too.
When teaching cooking, what are the three things you need?
- Curiosity. Why does something taste good? “Why” is usually the thing missing in most instruction.
- Time. Time to watch first, think it through and play around.
- Hunger. A craving for understanding as well as a physical hunger always drives me!
Gascony is legendary for its gastronomic heritage. Which dishes are you especially passionate about?
I love the slow braising, back of stove farm dishes — poultry and vegetables simmering in their own juices, coaxed into a silky sauce with a bit of fat and wine. Canard à la vigneronne, poule au pot, lapin aux pruneaux…
Croustade aux Poires © Ruth Ribeaucourt
You’ve welcomed many food personalities, including David Lebovitz, into your home. Any cherished moments or visitors from your years at Camont?
I love it when friends or peers like David visit. Sharing my home and my life makes for deeper friendships. The best of all is when artists come and then produce something of their own, inspired by Camont. Anna Rifle Bond (of Rifle Paper Co.) just created a whimsical wallpaper of “Camont” that I will use in one of our guest bedrooms; Michael Ruhlman and his family came for a French break and added to his duck confit knowledge; last year Jamie Beck came back to Camont for Thanksgiving. When photographer and archivist Ruth Ribeaucourt came from Provence to photograph these recipes, we created another memorable moment and new friendship.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of your cookbook, A Culinary Journey in Gascony: Recipes and Stories from My French Canal Boat. How does it feel looking back at everything you’ve accomplished?
I have been re-reading these 25-year-old stories of my early discoveries of French market shopping and recipes. I can see the 30-year-old me learning to pick the best ingredients, while the 40-year-old me begins to understand how our agriculture world works. The 50-year-old me starts asking why we embrace the early season fruit but wait until the peak before conserving. Now, the 60-year-old me is looking back with an understanding of what I do differently, after all these years. That is a real celebration of time!