When Lulu Peyraud passed away on October 7, two months shy of her 103rd birthday, wine lovers around the world honored her with bottles from Domaine Tempier, the Provençal winery that she and her husband oversaw for over 50 years. In the U.S., perhaps no more tears (or glasses of Tempier rosé) were spilled than at Chez Panisse.
Alice Waters was introduced to Peyraud by the legendary food writer Richard Olney just a few years after her Berkeley restaurant opened in the early 70s, and, as Waters recalls, it was love at first sight, watching this chicly dressed force of nature cook a generous yet simple meal from the kitchen fireplace that had served everyone who visited the vineyard for decades.
Over the ensuing 40-plus years, Waters sent out countless bottles of Tempier’s distinctively nuanced Bandol rosé and inky mourvèdre to welcome VIP’s. It is no underestimation to say that having Waters’ stamp of approval on Lulu’s melon-hued wine helped set the rosé juggernaut in motion. The relationship between the two diminutive, powerful and passionate women was its own juggernaut. Peyraud’s way of cooking — and living — profoundly inspired Waters at home and in her restaurant, thereby informing the tastes of generations of cooks.
Waters recently shared her candid memories of her mentor and friend, including the essential life lessons she gleaned. If there’s one thing we can all learn from Lulu Peyraud, it is this: There is always more room at the table.
Tell me about the first time you met Lulu.
I believe it was three or four years after we opened Chez Panisse, around 1974. Richard Olney took me to the domaine. Needless to say, it was love at first sight — and really, right up to the end. I saw her a year ago; I was staying at her house with her daughter, who had been taking care of her — in such a beautiful way — for the past 10 years. So I got a good look at what everyday life was for Lulu. I wanted to know how she can live so long and with so much good spirit. I wanted to know every detail. So I observed, carefully. And she always had a smile on her face. She always believed that whoever she was talking with was the most important person.
I tried to think of what was really, really special about her, because of all of the obituaries that are being written, and that quality of giving people your complete attention — complete! So much so that if you had met her, you would have thought she was your best friend! But people felt that; they felt very connected. And she always wanted to know about them and their work, and was so thrilled by that kind of conversation, whether it was with Jim Harrison or a grandchild. She had the same focus and amusement and curiosity. That’s pretty unique, I think, in people. And I think that’s why she traveled around the world and she got to know so many people that they wanted to come back and see her again.
What was it about her approach to life that struck you?
She just took it all in stride. She didn’t get upset with things. She had a very high pain threshold, which helps. She made people laugh. She had a sense of humor. And she was always looking for that. It was such a pleasure for her to have a group of people for lunch. And if two more people came, two more places were set. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, we only have food for six and how are we going to make this for eight?! Are there more chairs?” Not obsessions like I have. She really just said, “Oh! There’s always room!” I think it came from her sort of fearlessness of going into the Mediterranean, even in December, and swimming. It’s combined with that curiosity. She never needed to go down the same path. She was always willing to take a little risk: “Let’s go that way. Let’s go up the hill. Let’s go to this restaurant that I haven’t been to!” I tried to really learn from her: that sort of letting go, not being just this perfectionist, that I can be critical.
She made certain dishes wonderfully, and she knew that they pleased everybody, and she would make them again and again. She didn’t feel the need to constantly change what she was doing. She always knew that I liked salad. She would always do cheese after the main dish, but she always had a salad for me because she knew. She loved to go to the market. She ate absolutely in season, no question, because that’s really what she grew up on. That’s the way it was.
What was it like to be in her home and at her table?
Her aesthetics were so beautiful, and I admired her choices of just about everything. She just had a great sense, not only about her house and the furniture and the plates she used and all of that, but about what she wore, too. My friend Susie tells me all the time, “It’s so important, as you get older, to look chic. Smile and look chic.” And that really is Lulu. There was a kind of simplicity about her; her house as well. That sort of ancient structure of the domaine had the high ceilings, the beautiful old tiled terracotta floors and, you know, windows in all the right places — things that we’ve forgotten all about. Fireplaces in all the rooms.
Was it her fireplace in the kitchen that inspired yours?
Oh, absolutely! The last time I saw her, she would go out with her walker and she would get firewood, the vine cuttings, and bring them into the kitchen and start a fire at breakfast time. Because she knew I loved that. She didn’t like to feel like she needed that walker, so she had this great idea of one of those old carts that you take dishes from a table on, a wooden cart with two layers, and she just used that as her walker. And so she would clear the table; she wanted to do that. And it was just so elegant.
What are some things that you learned from her, both from the sort of the arts de vivre and also from the food itself?
Well, certainly, that there’s always more food. There’s always one extra person we can accommodate. It’s never a problem. Her comfort level of having a lot of people cooking in the kitchen — it was never a struggle to get food to the table. And maybe that’s because of her very large family and training from that time, but I loved not being nervous about that. I’m going to think of her always on my shoulder saying, “It’s alright, Alice. Don’t worry. Let it go.” I practiced that the other night.
What were some of your favorite dishes that she made?
I loved her soupe au pistou, with the lamb leg in there to give it the flavor. She would make it after she’d had some lamb dinner the night before and just throw the leg in the pot for lunch the next day to make the stock. Lamb chops — those big, long ones cooked on the grill, and, of course, the spinning lamb from the top of the fireplace were classic dishes of Lulu. She loved to do potato gratin. She loved to serve sea urchin roe. One of those kids, after they went diving for the sea urchin, they’d bring them over to her and open them up and she got slices of bread and spread them with butter and sea urchin roe.
There was a wonderful simplicity to her cooking. I hope that Richard Olney’s book can get reprinted. And it would be so great if it got printed in French, too, because she’s never been seen as the inspiring cook to the French in the way that she has been to people who spoke English. People who have been to the domaine, yes, but she’s never been seen like Richard Olney saw her.
I always loved the ritual of courses. I still think about that most when I’m cooking: What do you want to have in sequence? What are the three things, the four things, that go together? What are their textures? What are their colors? What, texturally, feels right? And she always wanted to serve me something that I might not know. I’ve been to the market so many times with her.
How do you describe Domaine Tempier wines?
Well, I’m a little prejudiced for a lot of reasons. It’s just that I know and have been to every place where the grapes are grown. I know that terroir is everything. It has, absolutely, just so much character and depth, and they try not to do much to it. I think they really brought out the character of that region.
I drink Bandol rosé every night. I know I’m very spoiled. I’m sure that I have enough in my cellar to get me through. I obviously don’t drink a bottle a night, but I drink a couple of glasses. And it not only brings Lulu into my kitchen, but also, at these times, it just decompresses me in a way that’s beautiful. I love the color. I love the color surprising people at the beginning of a meal. I’ve been cooking meals for important people in my backyard, so I’ve been using the Bandol as part of my feeding them the idea. It works! [Laughs.]
How do you describe that color? It’s so specific to them.
Yes, it is. It’s not too orange and it’s not too pink. When I drank rosé the first time, it was in the Loire, when I went to Paris when I was 19. I was so afraid I was going to make the wrong choice between red and white that I chose rosé! Thank God I was in the Loire when I was doing this, because they have a beautiful rosé there. But it’s a different color. I consider Domaine Tempier just that really beautiful — it’s more, you know, in the melon place. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re ever drinking anything resembling the rosés available in America at that time, which felt like you were drinking a soft drink in terms of sugar content and the color of it. We’ve changed enormously, and I think a lot because of Domaine Tempier rosé, I have to say.
It’s really in the last sort of 10 to 15 years that rosé has turned around. How do you think Tempier helped move things?
I think probably the deliciousness of the red brought people to all of their wines that they were making. Certainly a lot had to do with people like Richard Olney and, I dare say so, myself and Chez Panisse and, of course, Kermit [Lynch, Berkeley wine importer] and his wonderful newsletter that always talks about who the people are in a very captivating way.
I think, also, Lulu’s — the whole family’s — visits, both to New York and to Berkeley, were very important for people to know them personally. Not only the wine store owners, but a lot of chefs were gathering. She came to the 30th birthday at the restaurant. She would have been almost 85, and her family was, how should we say this, a bit worried about her. And she just kind of sneaked out and got a ticket and she came with one of her daughters in law.
I think about those family rituals of Domaine Tempier, and the ways that they work together seamlessly as a family. So it was like, I’ll get the wine, you get the corkscrew. I get the glasses, you pour. And it would be a ballet at the table. Not a word spoken.
What do you think Lulu’s contribution was to the wine world, and do you think she helped to change anything?
No question about that. I mean, she was interested in wine internationally. They were part of the cuisine event Français. They would take trips, a whole group of connoisseurs. They would go to, I want to say to Russia, they would go to the Middle East, to Lebanon, to South America, then go to Japan. They really had a curiosity, and a real scope. I’m sure that she connected with a whole network. I mean, I just know how many people know her in the state of California! She, like many of my mentors who were older, really had an interest in wine and food. And even people like Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Diana Kennedy. I think about how influential Cecilia Chiang has been; she knows so much about wine, as well as about food. And I’m very sad: She’s in her last days. She’s in hospice. [Chiang passed away on October 28 at the age of 100.]
Lulu was never using feminism to show her strength. She was just being so subtly informed and persuasive. I admired that in that sort of the Slow Food way of winning people over to your ideas. She had very fine-tuned taste. I think Richard Olney schooled her enormously. I mean, probably gastronomically as well as in enologically, if that’s a word. She just believed in him — as we all do. And she goes to his house and brings people there — you can have a meal at the house if you order in advance. The caretaker has become quite a good cook. That’s where Lulu took me. She wanted to go on the pilgrimage back.
And then of course she knew some of the Pagnol characters in person. I think she might have known Raimu. She took me one time on a tour. She called it The Route to Pagnol. Or the Route to Panisse. She took me to all the places in Provence where the films were shot. So we climbed up in the mountains and we went to Marseille. We went across the bay just so that I could get to have a complete feeling of Pagnol.
You said that when you visited Lulu last year, you were observing details about how she was living. What will you incorporate into your own life?
I haven’t quite done that yet, but I am going to. She’s very, very rigid about when she goes to bed, and when she wakes up. She goes to bed at eight and has a small meal at dinner. One glass of wine. She takes a pot of tisane up to her room, and when she wakes up at night, she listens to the radio. Oh, I forgot the important thing: Before she goes to bed, she writes down everybody she met and what she did during the course of the day. It’s an aide de memoire. And then she comes down for breakfast at 8 in the morning. It’s a very ritual breakfast of tea and toast. Her main meal is at lunch. That’s when she will have a glass of Champagne if there are friends there. A glass of Champagne and two glasses of red. After lunch is over at about 3:30, she goes to bed to sleep for one hour, no more.
And, again, she’ll bring in wood in the morning to make a fire. She waters the lawn. Her exercise is swinging on a swing. She can’t walk the way she wants, but she can be on that swing! And she has a swing set, so I can swing with her. I think that writing down what you did that day will be really something important for me. Maybe it’s listening to the radio in the middle of the night. But I even, right now, when it gets to be colder, I will make a fire in the fireplace.
Did you do anything at the restaurant to honor her in the last couple of weeks?
I just thought she would make it to her 103rd, then she’d call it quits one night; say goodbye. She was 102 and three quarters. I just thought she’d make it till November, so I was so taken by surprise. I needed to do something. So I decided to make a wreath for the front of the restaurant of olive branches. And I went to the Edible Schoolyard and picked the branches there and I tied them to this huge sort of form that we use for the peace sign. And then I went to my favorite store, The Tail of the Yak, and bought some beautiful green ribbon. I asked the owner to calligraph on the dates of Lulu and Domaine Tempier. I found some beautiful marble grapes there and tied them at the top of the wreath. We did lots of her recipes; we still are doing them.
But I haven’t yet sat down to write to the whole family. I’m connected to [her daughter] Laurence, who said that Lulu wanted her ashes next to her husband’s, Lucien, in the garden beyond the house. And that’s what she did. I’m just so glad they’re together.
Lulu will always be present in my life. She’s there now. As devastating as it was, it’s become kind of a comfort to know that she’s not gone-gone. She isn’t. I’m sure I’ll feel differently when I go to the domaine again. But it’s so beautiful that the whole family is connected, and they’re all going to take up a piece of the rituals, the loving of Lulu. That’s a real comfort that it will go on. It will go on in the wine and it will go on in the hospitality. It will. She’s there.
Christine Muhlke is a food consultant and writer currently based in Woodstock, NY. A former editor at The New York Times and Bon Appétit and the founder of the Xtine newsletter, she has written books with chefs Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, David Kinch of Manresa and Eric Werner of Hartwood Tulum. Her most recent books include Wine Simple with Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm and Signature Dishes That Matter.