American Author Patricia Wells Celebrates Two Acquired Passions—France and Its Abundant Cuisine

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Last fall Patricia Wells decided to celebrate her 40th birthday in style. She and her guests would travel to the renovated farmhouse she shares with her husband in the Provence region of southern France. They would dine on her poolside terrace. The celebration would go on all weekend, and one of the activities would be a tour of local Roman ruins. And, she says, she decided to compile "a guest list that would paralyze the most confident of cooks." On it, among other culinary luminaries, were Julia Child, three of the most celebrated chefs in France and the director of Paris' well-known cooking school La Varenne.

Entertaining such a glittering gaggle of gourmets would be enough to leave most hostesses atwitter with dread. Not Wells. She prepared a perfectly executed birthday lunch—including leg of lamb Provencal and a multi-layered chocolate cake. "Somewhat to my surprise and delight," she said, "I had the time of my life."

And why not? Wells is, after all, no facile upstart but an American woman who has shown she can more than stand the haute in the toniest of French kitchens. During the past decade, as regular restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune (her husband, Walter, is news editor) and as a contributor to the New York Times, she has become one of the most respected food critics working. Her 1984 book, The Food Lover's Guide to Paris, won raves (said New York food critic Gael Greene, "No serious hedonist should go to Paris without it") and sold 70,000 copies. In her new book, The Food Lover's Guide to France, Wells audaciously takes on the whole food-conscious country with her breezily authoritative style.

She is as devoted to detail in her own kitchen as she is while researching her meticulous guides, and her enthusiasm for fine food is unbounded. "When I was working on the Paris book, I'd come home and say to my husband, 'I've just had one of the best three days of my life.' He'd answer, 'You say that every other week.' "

As a child, Milwaukee-born Patricia Kleiber was more interested in writing than in food. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1968 with a degree in journalism, she married a photographer. Eventually she and her husband went East, where she got her first newspaper job as a copy editor and art reviewer for the Washington Post, contributing an occasional food column to Washingtonian magazine even though she was a vegetarian, something she "just eased into" in the '60s. Divorced in 1976, she went to New York and interviewed for a job at the Times.

Her interviewer turned out to be Walter Wells, whom she would marry a year later. Patricia also got the job and in 1977 renounced her vegetarianism to work as a food writer. Two years later Walter was given the chance to move to Paris as news editor of the Herald Tribune, but the Wellses were intimidated by the prospect of such a major change. The clinching argument came from veteran Times food critic Craig Claiborne. "If you have to ask my opinion on this," he told them, "you don't deserve to go."

Wells found her way around Paris the same way she learned the language—by plunging right in, interviewing bakers and chefs and doing freelance reviews for the Trib. Four years later came her Food Lover's Guide to Paris. The guide to all of France was tougher, requiring two years' worth of five-day trips into the countryside in quest of the truly delectable. Despite the rigors of those forays, which usually began at 5 a.m., Wells did pick up one skill that is invaluable to the continuing research expeditions she undertakes to update her books. "I got very proficient at the all-purpose goat-farm-to-three-star-restaurant wardrobe," she says. "You wear black clothes and black patent leather shoes, and you try not to step in anything."

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