Richard Olney is, to invoke an overworked term, a genuine cult figure. An American artist who has made his home in France since the 1950s, he developed a deserved reputation there as both a cook and a writer on food.
Through two books, The French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food, he became known in the United States. Thoughtful, sincere, intelligent and even esoteric, the books -- particularyly Simple French Foot -- had an influence far beyond their relatively limited circulation. There were numerous attempts to make him a food-world celebrity, but Olney prefers painting to cooking and the relative solitude of his hilltop home in Provence to urban crowds and restaurant fare.
Nevertheless, people -- to many people, he said -- came to call.
One of them was a Time-Life Books executive named Dale Brown, a polite but persistent man. Brown convinced Olney to take on a project that has caused him anguish, depression, overwork and threatens to make this essentially shy and aloof man a household name across America.
Olney has been working for more than two years now as chief consultant on a projected 22-volume series called The Good Cook . Subscription solicitations for the series will go out next month and the first books will appear in bookstores in April.
"As the chief consultant," said Gerry Schremp, who is directing the editing of the American edition here in Alexandria, "Richard works with the editorial staff developing outlines, directs the research to some extent and participates in the cooking-technique photo sessions or supervises them. It's an enormous job."
Olney is the first to agree.
"No one knew what I was going to do except me," he said during a visit to Washington earlier this month, "and I have learned as I've gone along. There was no real conceptual idea. The marketing tests for a uniquely American series hadn't worked, so they decided to try something international and publish it in America as well.
"The messages that eventually come across are essentially mine, but I don't want to stamp too much of my personality on it because I want people to understand there is more than one way to do things.
"Without too much conceit, I think it will be something never done before.It's a question of trying very hard to clear away the troublesome mystiques and mystifications that surround cooking and present things really quite basically."
The Time-Life Books people are quick to point out that the book, to be published in four languages, is "'By the Editors of Time-Life Books' and while Richard is active, the final decisions are made by the editors." Said another: "He has worked very hard. He will stay up until 4 a.m. to read a manuscript and he comments on every aspect, even the style. Not that we pay any attention."
Olney's appointment provoked two two main objections from within the small and often petty circle of cooking teachers and authors known as "the food world." First it was said his knowledge was too narrowly based in the food of France, and particularly of Provence, to handle the scope of the assignment. Second, he was painted as a loner, a difficult man who would not be able to work within a team structure.
Onley denies both charges, sort of.
"I am criticized, and on the other hand respected, because I am unable to delegate," he said. "I do find myself doing most of the cooking, which is ridiculous. I am reading all the copy, which I shouldn't do either. There are endless meetings to discover the logic of the thing. It can't continue. But I think the staff believes in what we're doing now. It adds up to giving all of them an in-depth cooking course."
While the volumes "seek geographic balance and to represent the old and the new as well," he said, the recipes "lean heavily toward Western cooking and 35 to 40 percent" are French. "Cooking is cooking," he said. "The basic methods can be applied anywhere. The same things happen phyically to foods when they are cooked. Tools may change from country to country, but cooking fethods don't vary so much."
Most of the techniques stress do-it-yourself methods, though a supplement on modern equipment and how to use it does come with the first volume of the series. "You have to know how to do it by hand," said a convinced Time-Lifer working on the series here.
"Richard is an absolute perfectionist," said George Constable, who supervised preparation of the first few volumes as European editor for the company. "He's prickly, stubborn and occasionally infuriating. But it is intellectually exciting to work with him and everyone in London has great respect for him as a genuine authoity. Although he makes noises, he's really been very flexible."
In Alexandria, however, there has been a translation problem. European ingredients, taste and even stoves are different from those in America.
Recipes are being given in both metric and English measures, but Americans do more oven broiling and outdoor cooking than do Europeans. They don't have access to four varieties of artichokes in the market, or much want to make a pie that has cooked small fish peeping through the crust. A stir-fry section seems a reasonable addition to the volume on vegetables, even if a technique volume called "casserole cooking" doesn't.
Recipes are retested and may be adjusted here. "Our objective is to be as helpful and useful to the American reader as possible," said Gerry Schremp.
"But the differences are more profound than I realized," added a staffer. "These books should help educate people to look for unusual food stuffs. If enough people ask for sorrel or eel in the markets, they'll be there."
This is Time-Life Books' first food project since the phenomenally successful Foods of The World series published between 1968 and 1971. While few expect so dramatic a success for The Good Cook , those close to the new undertaking are "excited."
The format and much of the prose will be pure Time-Life, but, according to a senior executive, "Richard Olney's thumb print is definitely on it. He has been critically important in planning."
The Good Cook is "a teaching series," according to Olney. The books, to sell for $7.95 to subscribers and for a higher price in bookstores, will have titles such as "Poultry," "Fish," Vegetables." About half of each book will present techniques, along with color illustrations. The second half of each volume will be an anthology of about 200 recipes.