Franey Surveys America's Palate

PIERRE FRANEY tells a story of how, just the other day, he was walking near Lincoln Center in New York when a cabby drove by and shouted to him, "Heeeey Pie-e-e-e-r-r-e! Don't burn the garlic!"

Such incidents cause a chuckle to erupt from Mr. Franey. As a TV-cooking-show host, cookbook author, and syndicated columnist, he's become a celebrity.

"People come up to me, thanking me," said the French-born chef in a Monitor interview. Once, a husband and wife approached him at a book signing, lugging all the Franey books they had collected, and told him how much they enjoy cooking together.

"To me, this is rewarding," says Franey.

Franey has made a lifetime career of cooking and teaching others how to cook simply and quickly. His latest project is monumental: a 26-week public television series and an accompanying book, both titled "Pierre Franey's Cooking in America." He and a crew traveled 65,000 miles to explore food in America - its production, traditions, preparation - then translated recipes for home cooks. He visited farms, markets, restaurants, and homes, partaking in regional customs.

"I really enjoyed myself.... I learned a lot," says Franey, who is well past retirement age but does not look it.

Today, he reminisces about his adventures in Tuscarora, Nev., where he joined buckaroos for a cattle roundup. In Turlock, Calif., he visited a honey farm; in Crisfield, Md., he watched crabbing. He observed oranges in Florida, rice in Texas, cheese in Wisconsin, pigs in Iowa, cherries in Washington, "the Cajun life" in New Orleans, and more.

Americans are interested in food now more than ever, says Franey. That is why investigating various aspects of food production and regional traditions can be so enlightening. After seeing firsthand food's connection to the land (and water) - not just the supermarket - one becomes more appreciative.

"Everywhere, in fact, we discovered that food we took for granted was really a stunning part of the American adventure," writes Franey in "Cooking in America" (co-written with Richard Flaste, published by Knopf).

Franey learned the basics of cooking at home in Burgundy, France, from his mother and grandmother. Then, at age 14, he went to study classical cooking in Paris.

"I'm very proud of my training," says Franey. "You have to learn to crawl before you dance."

By 1939, he was the youngest chef cooking at the French pavilion at the New York World's Fair. When the fair ended in 1940, France was occupied by the Nazis, and Franey could not return. He served in the infantry of the United States Army and was awarded a Purple Heart.

In 1951, he became the executive chef of New York's Le Pavillon. In 1976 he started a newspaper career with the New York Times and began writing cookbooks. His television debut was "Cuisine Rapide" in 1989, which still airs on public-TV stations across the country, as well as his new "Cooking in America."

Today, he was finishing a promotional tour. But he's not bashful about admitting that what he'd really like to do is get back to his home on Long Island and work in his garden. "I have a beautiful garden. I love to be outdoors." He also reveals that he is writing an autobiography.

Franey is known for his simple style, his knack for the practical. He realizes that not everyone has the luxury of studying food and cuisine. Indeed, especially today, few are able - or want to - spend a lot of the time in the kitchen preparing meals. So when he instructs on TV or writes about food, Franey pares things down to easy-to-swallow portions.

His immensely popular, nationally syndicated column, "The 60-Minute Gourmet," has been running since 1976. "I've never missed one week yet. I feel pretty good about that," he says.

A true believer that good food doesn't have to be difficult, Franey designs his recipes with today's time-pressed person in mind: not too many ingredients, no complex procedures.

"When you cook, you have to concentrate," says Franey. "You learn about flavors." He encourages people to start out slowly with simple recipes. Once you've been cooking a while, you adopt a certain instinct and things get easier, he says. You'll find you can be creative on your own. Second in an occasional series; the first ran April 30.

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