Colette Rossant, 91, Dies; Gave French Cuisine a Global Flourish – US 247 News


Colette Rossant, a native of Paris whose childhood in Cairo before and during World War II gave her a global view of cuisine that eventually helped fuel a prominent career in New York as a cookbook author, food critic and food memoirist, died on Thursday at her home in Normandy, France. She was 91.

The cause was breast cancer, her daughter Juliette Rossant said.

Ms. Rossant, whom the writer Calvin Trillin once called “the cook of my dreams,” made her mark in the mid-1970s when she helped broaden the palate of American food connoisseurs, then dominated by traditional haute French cuisine, by fusing Western cuisine with that of Asia and the Middle East.

Although she was an influential voice in food for decades, she was a late bloomer. After moving to New York City in 1955, when she was 23, she spent nearly two decades teaching French at private high schools there, as well as at Hofstra University on Long Island.

Her career in the kitchen — and behind the typewriter — began in 1972, when she was 40 and started an after-school cooking class with Juliette, who was then 12, and some of her classmates at her townhouse in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Two years later, she adapted those playful lessons into a public television children’s show called “Zee Cooking School.” In 1975, she spun off these cooking tips into “Cooking With Colette,” her first of seven cookbooks.

Her best-known offering, “A Mostly French Food Processor Cookbook” (1977), written with Jill Harris Herman, capitalized on the Cuisinart craze of the 1970s. That book, which sold more than 100,000 copies, was brimming with easy-to-make recipes, like brisket of beef with cranberries and green peppercorns and steamed persimmon pudding with brandy sauce, that were “adventurous and inspired without being overly sophisticated,” Ann Barry wrote in a review in The New York Times.

Through her travels in East Asia — as well as her strolls through New York’s Chinatown — Ms. Rossant developed an expertise in Asian cooking, which culminated in another of her most popular cookbooks, “Colette’s Japanese Cuisine” (1985).

By that point, she was also becoming a fixture in the food world of New York, mingling with top chefs and critics.

In a 1981 article in The Times with the headline “The Inspirations of a Global Cook,” Craig Claiborne, the newspaper’s august food critic, wrote that he “found it impossible to refuse an invitation to a Rossant meal, which turned out to be a feast,” including a blend of fresh and smoked salmon christened with rillettes of fish as an appetizer, a roast of veal “cooked to a savory state in milk” and other delicacies.

Mr. Claiborne noted that Mr. Trillin, the celebrated author, humorist and food writer, had once written that whenever he was invited to dine at Ms. Rossant’s, his wife, Alice, was “forced to grab me by the jacket two or three times to keep me from breaking into a steady, uncharacteristic trot.”

Ms. Rossant also established herself as a food critic. In 1979, she was hired by New York magazine to write the column “The Underground Gourmet,” a survey of affordable yet adventurous restaurants throughout the city. In the 1990s, she wrote a food advice column for The Daily News of New York called “Ask Colette.”

Ms. Rossant’s prose would eventually take a more literary turn. Following in the path of the celebrated food essayist and author M.F.K. Fisher, she wrote three richly evocative food memoirs: “Memories of a Lost Egypt” (1999), later republished as “Apricots on the Nile”; “Return to Paris” (2003); and “The World in My Kitchen” (2006).

These languid, evocative reminiscences chronicled Ms. Rossant’s lifelong culinary odyssey from the villas of Egypt through the boulevards of Montparnasse to the skyscraper canyons of New York. They also allowed readers to experience the tastes and smells of these locales by sprinkling in recipes from her journeys.

Publishers Weekly said that reading “Memories of a Lost Egypt” was “like spending an afternoon in the kitchen with a beloved older relative,” adding, “What could be better than hearing tales of an exotic past while preparing the foods that are at the core of the shared memories?”

Colette Sol Palacci was born on Jan. 18, 1932, in Paris, the younger of two children of Iska Palacci, an Egyptian Jew who was the buyer in Europe for his father’s department store in Cairo, and Marceline Bemant, the daughter of a wealthy French businessman.

After Colette’s father had a stroke in 1937 that rendered him paralyzed and blind, the family moved to Cairo to live with her paternal grandparents in their plush Mediterranean-style villa.

Despite their material comfort, there were problems. In “Apricots on the Nile,” Ms. Rossant depicted her mother as a self-involved woman who frequently abandoned her to travel. In Cairo, her mother, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, sent Colette to convent school, where the mother superior referred to her as the “little pagan.”

Her escape was the kitchen at home, where the house cook, Ahmet, became a friend and cooking mentor, despite her grandmother’s admonitions that hovering over a stove was no place for a young girl of good breeding.

After the war, her family returned to Paris, where she studied French literature at the Sorbonne.

In 1955, she married James Rossant, a New Yorker with whom she had fallen in love when she was 16 and he was in college, traveling through France. Fittingly, she wrote, “He fell in love with me on the first evening we met, because I served him the best tomato salad he had ever eaten.”

“Cooking With Colette,” spun off from Ms. Rossant’s television show, was the first of seven cookbooks she would publish.Credit…Scribner

That same year, the newlyweds set out on an ocean liner for New York, where Mr. Rossant began what would be a prominent career in architecture.

At first, American culture proved a shock, American dining even more so. At a lunch at her brother-in-law’s apartment, she was horrified to find that the salad was made with iceberg lettuce — “the same type of salad,” she wrote in “The World in My Kitchen,” “that the American army wives bought at the PX in Germany, but with some strange dressing that they called ‘French.’”

In addition to her daughter Juliette, Ms. Rossant is survived by two other daughters, Marianne and Cecile Rossant; a son, Tomas; and eight grandchildren. Her husband died in 2009.

She later learned to appreciate New York cuisine on a stroll through Central Park with her toddler nephew John. After trying to calm him with a pretzel from a cart that had “a taste of gasoline,” she recalled, she bought a bagel at a nearby bakery. “I took a bite, and I was very surprised,” she wrote. “The bagel was chewy, and the crust hard but very tasty.”

“Happy now,” she added, “we walked for an hour before heading back to the house.”