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Laura Calder's 'Paris Express' cookbook a love letter to city and its food

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TORONTO - Laura Calder is passionate about the niceties when it comes to food and culture and wants to inspire Canadians to eat simple food with family and friends at a table set properly — with napkins.

In her fourth book, "Paris Express," the author and television personality has compiled about 120 recipes and interspersed them with her opinions on cooking and living.

"The concept is simple. Simple, easy things to cook, but it's also simple, easy ways to make your everyday life better, more pleasant, more livable," she said while visiting Toronto from her most recent address, the West Coast.

"I love these recipes because they come from friends of mine. They're all things that people have given me and I've tested them. I might add the odd thing, but I'm a chronicler, not an inventor. I don't sit in the kitchen in a clinical way coming up with ideas because I like the story around it."

The book is also an ode to Paris, a city Calder loves for its elegance and beauty which she called home for about 10 years.

"I think this is a bit of a love letter to the city which has given me so much," she said, noting she's long had an affinity for things French. She was born in New Brunswick to English parents but was educated in French immersion and later lived in Quebec.

She feels most at home in Paris, with the Right Bank her favourite area to reside, and where residents care about the little things in life, such as a store clerk greeting a customer or people making an effort with their appearance.

"You walk into a room full of people and everyone's dressed like a pack of slobs you feel pppphht. If everyone looks nice it makes you feel good and I think that they have in the culture a genuine appreciation for the true value of beauty and we don't have that and I think that's what made me crave Paris."

But Calder, who hosted 78 episodes of "French Food at Home" on Food Network Canada which won a prestigious James Beard Award, is not happy with two recent changes in Paris.

"Burgers are everywhere. It's a fad. ... They're used to steak tartare and so they see a burger and now they eat it with a knife and fork.

"And they're just really starting to play music in restaurants. So there are still some that don't and I always LOVED the silence. Because you do hear at night when you're walking the streets of Paris, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink and talking and talking. Now the music, in certain places anyway, overrides that, but still the amazing thing is that everyone's eating at night.

"The whole country is sitting down to eat somewhere between 7 and 11 whereas here they're probably at soccer practice or they're watching TV or they're doing something else. So I tried to capture that feeling of what Paris was for me."

Calder entertains frequently because she wants meals to be an experience, not a 10-minute chore to undergo before collapsing in front of the television.

"When you're cooking for someone else there's pleasure in it. For some reason when we do things just for ourselves it's not really any fun. It's only when you're giving somehow to other people that it becomes meaningful. It's a win-win. You always feel good."

The dishes in the book are suitable for entertaining as well as being "weeknight friendly and healthy too."

"People think French food isn't healthy, but junk food isn't healthy. Ordering takeout, eating in restaurants all the time and putting your sodium levels through the roof, that's not healthy, but cooking at home (is). Maybe I have a sauce or two, but not much. It's all just healthy good normal food."

She says consuming a tablespoon or two of butter a day is nothing compared to people drinking "litres and litres" of sugary soft drinks.

"That's what's killer and also eating out where there's packaged food full of chemicals. That's where the unhealthy stuff is."

Her book "French Taste" won gold at the Canadian Culinary Cookbook Awards in 2010. Calder has also appeared on "Iron Chef America," "Top Chef Canada" and was a judge on the first two seasons of "Recipe to Riches."

"I have to say it's OK to judge things once in a while, but I don't like that trend because I think I've spent my whole career saying to people, 'It's not a competition, it's about you giving, it's about sharing with people you love, you can do it, it's easy, it's not hard.'

"Then what is suddenly this turnaround where you're supposed to put down someone's attempts at trying or making people feel they're racing against the clock? And there's all that who's better and who's best. I just think it's disgusting, really.

"I don't think it makes anyone a better cook watching those shows or participating in them."

Follow (at)lois_abraham on Twitter.

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