i have been so excited to share this with you. louisa varalta is my aunt - my great uncle's wife - and she is everything fabulous you can imagine. a gifted painter, a delicious chef, an extraordinary hostess and the warmest person you'll meet. i was fortunate to grow up surrounded by her paintings and earlier this year, i was lucky enough to be a guest at her toronto home for an evening, and i knew i had to share it all with you. i apologize for the dim lighting...in person it was romantic, on my blackberry camera, it's a little dusky.
louisa was gracious enough to answer some questions and allow me to share photos of her work and her home. i want to soak up everything she says in her answers, and i think you'll feel the same. she is honest, candid, charming and just so totally fabulous. i know it from knowing her, and now you'll know it from reading on.
hl: you hosted us for the loveliest dinner last month and i have some questions...first, what was that delicious cheese you served?
lv: it is called "le soyeux" a camembert of ultimate quality...creamy with just enough tang to remind us of that certain edge in all things french.
hl: how do you usually build the menu of what you'll serve? where do you get your ideas?
lv: i'm unpredictable...if the party is a week down the road i may change my mind several times until the deadline to shop...but usually, if i'm entertaining a large crowd, i'll stick to an easy dish that'll serve tons of people...i.e. lasagna or a huge roast accompanied by an enormous salad with a couple of yummy homemade pies to round things up. for a more intimate dinner, then i'd go for more "recherche" dishes and let my imagination run wild; foie gras, roast fish, braised lamb shanks, celeriac puree, panna cotta, you know, the good stuff. i pluck ideas here and there, food network, local chefs' specialties, old and new magazines but eventually i make all of it my own by changing and adapting the recipe as i go along. it helps to have had as a father a talented chef and a mom who was, in his opinion, a superior cook -- both italian and i guess that's how it all started.
hl: it seems like you make everything from scratch - do you use any shortcuts you'd share?
lv: of course all homemade and from scratch...don't ask for bottled dressings. they don't exist in my house. shortcuts are another issue. if you have solid basic skills in the kitchen then you can and sometimes must take shortcuts as long as the integrity of the recipe is respected.
hl: is there a dish you just can't get right?
lv: my italian mother wanted desperately belong to her adopted quebec and time after time she would attempt to make "sucre a la creme" a basic fudge that stubbornly wouldn't set. my younger sister elena and i were the benefactors of that failure as she practically threw it at us to devour and make disappear until the next try. believe it or not, i too, to this day have not been able to master the "sucre a la creme" and there's nobody to take it off my hands, so guess who has to eat it....moi.
hl: what's the best thing you've ever eaten?
lv: you know i love that show on the food network where they ask all these famous TV chefs to tell us the best thing they've ever eaten. the series asks about things fried, about desserts, about bacon, about cocktails, you name it....and they come up with their "best ever eaten" in each category. i'd be hard pressed to choose one thing, but i'll tell you that pan fried foie gras prepared by didier leroy (chef/owner of didier in toronto) is as close to perfection and satisfaction as i have ever tasted....but i could go on and on...
hl: is there a chef you particularly admire?
lv: i've mentioned didier leroy, he is my friend as well as a master at his craft, but i also love to eat at chef masayuki tamaru's table at simple bistro in toronto. he trained with didier and although he is japanese, his delicacies are all french. another is jean-pierre challet of ici bistro again in toronto. his restaurant is tiny and always packed and the food is divine. last but not least the great susur lee who was a contestant last season on top chef masters and almost won. he is well known in the US and a big huge star here in toronto. all the above are my friends and i have had the pleasure of cooking for a few of them several times and you know something? they're the easiest people to please.
hl: you make hosting seem effortless...what's your best entertaining tip?
lv: chef didier leroy would say: "les gens se compliquent l'existence" (people make their lives complicated....) and he is right. i like to plan, make a list, stick to it and keep things simple. then say a little prayer, have a little cocktail and you're on your way....
hl: do you prefer being a guest at other peoples' homes or having people to yours?
lv: i adore being a guest although i sometimes get the impression people are intimidated. as if! if i have the guts to serve food to some of the best cooks, i don't see why anyone could possibly fear feeding me! but to be honest, i prefer hosting....control and bragging rights...that's what it's all about.
hl: i loved the tableau you set at the center of the dinner table - a little bell, some antique looking keys. where do you usually get little treasures like that, and do you know exactly how you'll use them when you pick them up?
lv: setting a beautiful table is absolutely important. i have, over the years, collected funny and weird objects, some that have nothing to do with "the table," but placing them there, such as the little keys you mentioned, incite curiosity and make the dining experience much more interesting. they also serve as conversation subjects that can help to break the ice if some guests are shy (never happened here!)
reader note: louisa handmade placecards for each guest at our dinner.
hl: your home is a total masterpiece - every detail is something to marvel at. did you know exactly where you were headed with each choice or did it evolve as you moved ahead?
lv: some pieces were picked with a specific use in mind such as the beams in the dining room ceiling...those were actually old stair railings and i knew when i saw them at the door store in toronto what i'd do with them....my husband wasn't initially convinced, but he loves them now. other objects or pieces of furniture i just fall in love with and must have. those will follow me wherever i go.
hl: do your tastes change often? if so, how do you address that change without having to overhaul your whole design?
lv: i'm a romantic and that's not going to change...however i do like a modern clean look but within such a decor i'd always have to include the strange object that would take even that slick look to a softer more romantic and a bit shabby chic relaxed environment.
hl: whose style of interior design do you love? any of the old classics, or are there new icons you love?
lv: five me french and english country anytime.
hl: where are your favorite places to shop for design and housewares?
lv: i love shopping at the door store in toronto (reader note: not to be confused with this place). they carry the most eclectic pieces from all over the world, old doors, chairs, decorative objects, architectural pieces from demolition sites, beautiful chandeliers, door knobs, some glasses and pots, all so interesting a different -- a place to fire your imagination. i also like teatro verde which is highly polished in its approach and so sophisticated - a jewel.
hl: what's the best design bargain you've ever found? and your biggest splurge?
lv: it wasn't a bargain and i did splurge on it: my kitchen! it is clean, fresh, white. a mixture of modern, industrial and old quebec styles. as the song says: "it cost me a lot ....."
hl: is there a piece you're dreaming of right now?
lv: i dream of my next house. (reader note: all of the marble texture you see below in the fireplace is louisa's faux-finish masterpiece. yeah.)
hl: now, your artwork...what's your favorite thing about your work? (reader note: all the paintings shown here are louisa's work).
lv: the fact that i allow it to change. hl: in lots of your work, the proportions of people and things are skewed and over the top...is that something specific to you, or it's just your aesthetic?
lv: i was strongly influenced by botero in the past and loved gigantic characters he created. to me they meant warmth, comfort and home somehow. i have since slimmed down my "people" and they have become a little bit menacing...not mean, just "watch out," kind of. i've also done away with background altogether (for now at least) and am drawing on huge canvasses these nude or semi- nude female figures in their simplest and most vulnerable glory.
hl: where do you get your ideas when you're ready to start a new piece?
lv: an idea can germinate for years until it appears in the forefront of your mind. you may think it just popped up but art lives inside the artist and just like a garden yields a new crop each summer, an idea will grow out of the depth of the mind without any effort from the artist. i will start with a simple drawing and may leave it at that or throw it away if I'm not happy. artists are unpredictable.
hl: do you ever go through dry spells where you just don't feel creative? if so, do you try to emerge from them or just let it happen naturally?
lv: oh boy yes. and that's tough to live through. but for every dry spell you are replenished by the time resting. dry spells are essential.
hl: is there one that got away -- a piece you gave or sold that you wish you hadn't?
lv: several....but as soon as i get back to work, something new happens and the past remains a source of reference and that's how it should be.
hl: do your worlds of art and design and cooking and entertaining connect to each other in your mind? do they all feel like part of the same expression or are they totally separate?
lv: absolutely, i cook the way i paint and i paint the way i cook. creating a good meal is as satisfying as drawing the most fantastic character. delicious is what they have to be.
how lovely is louisa? her answers are so thoughtful and i feel like they have the potential to help us all think broadly about what we do and how we do it. when i read louisa's answers to my questions, i felt inspired and excited, and i hope they make you feel the same way.