A Conversation with Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola is an award-winning director, writer, and producer of such films as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. His most recent film is Tetro, a drama that is his first original screenplay since The Conversation. He also owns and runs Francis Ford Coppola Presents, a company whose endeavors include a winery, restaurants, resorts, a literary journal, and pasta sauces.
Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet and a recipient of four James Beard Awards, is the author of four critically acclaimed books, most recently Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. Coppola and Reichl spoke over the phone in the summer of 2009, Coppola from his Northern California home, Reichl from New York City, to discuss Coppola’s cooking, the role of food in cinema, and the importance of family dinners.
I. SHOW TUNES
RUTH REICHL: Do you remember you cooked for me one night? Not just for me alone but for a group of us—it was one of the most spectacular meals, that.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Oh, I have to remember when it was, where it was…
RR: It was in your winery, and it was a group of us who were teaching food writing at Greystone, at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] there.
FFC: A couple years ago?
RR: Oh, it was maybe eight, nine years ago?
FFC: And we were in the main house of the estate?
RR: We were down in the cellar. It was a long table down in the cellar, and you made a L’Ami Louis dinner, and opened tons of wine, and, you know, we were devouring these potato cakes, it was incredible.
FFC: Yes, those cakes were hard to learn how to do. They’re cooked in—of course, not something I would eat now [chuckles]—but they’re cooked in goose fat. You slice the potatoes, and you sort of flip them for half an hour in this special wok-like pan with two handles on the sides. You do that for half an hour, and then after you do that you take up one of those copper pans and you put butter on the bottom, and goose fat, and then you press those potatoes with a napkin—press them in there as hard as you can, and then you put that on the top of the stove—you’re getting the whole recipe here! The trick is that when you turn them over and hope this thing is going to come out like a cake, all brown on the top, very often it’s a sort of collapsing pyramid. The trick is I guess how hard you get them packed in and then you just chop garlic and parsley on the top, and that’s the authentic L’Ami Louis potato tart, which once in a while I will attempt these days.
RR: Well, I was really knocked out, because I’ve had it many times at L’Ami Louis [in Paris] and… yours is better!
FFC: Well, I only learned from them, so if it was better I can’t imagine what it was. It must have been that night, it must’ve been the wine.
RR: Maybe it was the wine! And then you said, “Give me a show tune, any show tune, and I’ll sing it!”
FFC: What was the name of the show?
RR: I had the name of a show, and I was very excited because I stumped you.
FFC: On what, on Wildcat, or…
RR: No Strings.
FFC: No Strings? Let’s see. I know that one tune from No Strings, what’s the one tune everyone knows from No Strings.…
RR: Having seen it when I was a kid, for some reason I knew them all, so I was…
FFC: Well, it’s possible to stump me, but it’s hard.
RR: [Laughs] Anyway, it was a spectacular evening, and the food was just amazing.
FFC: Well, I did learn how to cook all the dishes at L’Ami Louis. There was that one class, I forget what it was for, it might have been my daughter’s wedding or another occasion when we were going to have—this is years ago—we were going to have a L’Ami Louis dinner here in the Napa Valley and a whole group from the restaurant came over. They were on vacation, about four of the chefs and Louis—who is not the Louis that L’Ami Louis is based on but his name happens to be Louis— and the two young assistants. They all came and stayed here in Napa for about two weeks, and in the course of it we just cooked their whole thing, their whole menu, and I learned how to make everything from them. So, that’s one small talent I have. A lot of it of course is what they make it with, you know—it’s hard to compete with a French chicken. The French really have—they’re not cheap of course—but to buy a chicken in France you’re getting a really great chicken, and that’s what they use.
RR: Well, on the other hand it’s hard for them to compete with American beef.
FFC: Oh, its true, I’m a big fan of American beef. Even having lived in Argentina for a year, and knowing about the two different styles of meat and preparation, I tend to like everything according to what makes it distinctive, so I can appreciate Argentine meat—it’s very different— but I have to say my favorite is American beef. They’re raised in totally different ways and they’re cut, butchered, in totally different ways.
RR: I’m starting to have this real love for Italian beef, the cattle that they’re starting to raise there.
FFC: Oh, my son prefers the Italian, the kind of fiorentina, which is like a great big T-bone steak.
RR: From those great big white cattle.
FFC: Yeah, you’d go to Rome and go to Girarrosto Fiorentino and you’d get that incredible grilled meat medley. That’s hard to beat, too.
RR: It is.
FFC: But these days I’m changing my diet. One of the interesting things about food is that as you learn more, you have other requirements…. My theory is that you can learn to love whatever’s good for you, like in the old days when I used to have sugar in my coffee, and I said You know, you can’t really have sugar like that, so then I said I’ll just learn to like coffee without sugar, and so for a long time I drank this coffee and didn’t like it because it didn’t have any sweetness, and before you know it, I started to really like that—and now if you gave me coffee with sugar in it I couldn’t possibly drink it. So I am of the school, and believe, that if you decide what it is that you are supposed to be eating or would be good for you, then you can teach yourself to really prefer that. So now my diet is totally changed.
RR: See, I come at it from the opposite way. I think that if you really listen to your own body, it will tell you what it wants to eat. The problem is that we have been trained—from childhood—to eat stuff that is really bad for us.
FFC: I totally agree with you. But if you want to untrain yourself, it’s true that a lot of times you have these meals and you just feel bloated and you ate too much and you drank too much, and you feel awful, and that’s your body telling you not to do that, no question. But you can help it—I mean, you can start to say, What is the logic of nutrition? What are you able to eat a lot of and what aren’t you able to eat a lot of? Then you can start to discipline yourself. I’ve done it a couple of times with things I’ve never cared for, but I knew would be good for me.
RR: Like what?
FFC: Basically any vegetable at all.
RR: You’re not a vegetable guy?
FFC: No, I am. I always… I was OK, there were vegetables I liked and some I didn’t like, but today—and it could be an influence of my wife, in that she has always for years and years pursued the organic or the homegrown, and since we live in the country it’s possible for us to have a garden—but I would say that there is no vege table that I don’t like. And, cooked correctly—which is to say, you know, do very little cooking, the vegetable area is the one area that you really get a break—there are a lot of vegetables that you can really eat a lot of, and you don’t have to worry, “I can’t eat much of that.”
FFC: So a vegetable is a free pass.
RR: Yes—although they’re all better with either olive oil or butter on them! [Laughs]
FFC: Well, that’s a mystery that I never knew—I didn’t realize that, like, a teaspoon of olive oil got a hundred calories. I had no idea. That’s the misconception: because certain things are good for you, because vegetable fat, or fish fat, is of a type better than other kinds of fat in terms of cholesterol and your heart and all that, and you think, That’s all right, that’s olive oil, it’s good oil, I can have it. But there are two issues: one is what’s good for you, what’s not good for you, and then there’s what is highly caloric—like, you know, avocado actually is a good kind of fat—vegetable fat—or salmon is a good kind of fat, for a lot of technical reasons, but it doesn’t mean you can eat a ton of it.
RR: Well, you probably could eat a ton of anything, but if you tuned into your body, you wouldn’t really want to.
FFC: Oh, definitely. There’re lots of tricks about that, but of course we’re not necessarily here to talk about diet regimes. Although I have, obviously, as a seventy-year-old man. If you like to eat and that means you gain five pounds every year, by the time you’re any older, you’re gonna be pretty big. So one has to think about that, but that’s a point people don’t understand—that certain things that are pretty much “good for you,” and you can pretty much eat everything, all you could want, of certain vegetables. I mean, vegetables are mainly water, water and nutrition, so if you want to eat a lot of spinach or broccoli, and you didn’t put much oil on it, used lemon juice or something, you could have a large—a regular large portion. In fact, that’s good, because it has high volume and it makes you very satisfied.
RR: You sound like you’re spending all your time deciding what not to eat!
FFC: [Laughs] No, not at all, I’m past that. I did have to do that—you know, again, unless I wanted to continue to turn into Orson Welles, or Marlon Brando. Recently I did look at what I was gonna do about my weight, so I had to come up with a philosophy or something that I could incorporate into my life so that I could enjoy eating without the burden of worrying about that. I feel I’ve done that successfully, but I have thought about it. And what I eat is different from what I used to eat five years ago.
RR: It’s too bad!
FFC: No, I’m not saying that at any time. What I eat now, what forms the dominant part of my meals, which I cook myself pretty much, I enjoy as much as… you know… sure, pasta is nice to eat, and I can make all kinds of wonderful pasta, but, ultimately, you can have that, you can have anything you want, as long as you do it in some sort of logical way. And, I can agree with you, if you are responsive to what makes you feel good and what makes you feel—what your body tells you. The truth is, I find that over my life, what I really love to eat or think about eating has changed, has evolved. And not just because I can’t have pasta every night because it wouldn’t work. I’m thinking of the first night I ever went and had Japanese food. I was about twenty-one and living in Los Angeles going to UCLA. I mean, I had never had Japanese food—we had Chinese food in every neighborhood as a kid, but never had Japanese food. Then a few years after, the very first Japanese food I had was sukiyaki, and the soups and things. There came about this fishy phenomenon which was years later, which, in my culture, in my life, we would never eat anything like that. And then all of a sudden that became OK… so what we eat is a constantly changing list of things.
RR: I remember my first experience of sushi. It was like being let into some secret world. It wasn’t just that we were eating raw fish, taking it right from the hand of man who was making it. But there were all these rules about sushi: you weren’t supposed to dip the rice into the soy sauce, and there was a correct order in which you were supposed to eat, and for me it was like entering another culture and sitting down at a table that I’d never imagined. It offered this whole range of really simple flavors. We’re so used to complex flavors, and Japanese food is all about very clear, clean, one-note flavors. It opened up a whole new idea of what food could be.
FFC: Totally. Last night we went out—there happens to be a really good restaurant in Napa—and we had sushi and sashimi. I was looking at all these people eating it, you know, these treasures on the table, this source of fresh fish, and I’m thinking, My God, the world now starts to become interested and obsessed with sushi and sashimi and stuff—how could there ever be enough fish in the sea to supply that?
RR: Well that’s the problem—there aren’t.
FFC: Yeah, there aren’t. So there are these things that, as these new horizons open up and these cultures teach us new kinds of food, we have to really think about. Caviar is practically obsolete; I know beluga is endangered. They figure out ways to farm certain things, they’ve been successful in California, but my main point was that what I love to eat—and going back to what I used to love in my Italian-American childhood… and then as new things were made aware to me, as I traveled—how the food I love has changed, and isn’t the same. I still appreciate certain things from the past and certain classic things, but if I were to want to have dinner myself—as I do every night, pretty much cooking for myself and my wife— it’s very different from what I cooked years ago. And if guests came over, what I might try to cook for them.
RR: So what did you cook last night?
FFC: Last night we went to this restaurant in Napa called Go Fish, Cindy Pawlcyn’s restaurant.
RR: Well, what did you cook the night before?
FFC: Uh, the night before I think I cooked…. well, I’ve been learning how to cook Chinese food lately, but the night before in fact what I did cook was fish. My wife got some beautiful pieces of—not an expensive fish—cod, and then I just steamed that with a little olive something that we put on top, steamed it for a very short amount of time, and a lot of green vegetables that I made, mostly steamed. But I can cook some wonderful Chinese food, too. That’s been my interest lately: more stir-fry. Because if you make these Chinese dishes and you really make it yourself, which means you control the amount of oil you’re using, you can avoid one of the hidden dangers of Chinese food, which is the kinds of oils in them which you shouldn’t have.
RR: Sounds great.
II. FOOD AND ART
FFC: When I involved food in my films it wasn’t something I did for that reason—it’s just that I like to cook, I like to eat, so it’s natural that you’re portraying scenes in which people are cooking and eating. And if they’re cooking, you might as well tell folks how to do it, you know, so if there’re recipes in the projects, there’s nothing wrong if people like that.
RR: At first I just wanted people to be able to taste the food that I was writing about. I’m sure you have the same sense: you want them to feel that when they’re with your characters, that they’re right there, really at that table. The thing I discovered early on was that the vocabulary of food you have as a writer does not convey the sensual aspects of eating. “Delicious” doesn’t tell you much. So you end up writing around the food, and trying to evoke the flavors with words that have absolutely nothing to do with food.
FFC: Wine writers have been doing that for years. The vocabulary for trying to express the various nuances of wine have gotten really amusing.
RR: It’s gotten ridiculous! I think the wine writers have gotten to the point of absurdity, where the terms don’t mean anything. And the idea is actually to make it mean something to people, so they understand.
FFC: They try, they try. Ultimately, the different shades in some of these, within a sip of wine… I just like to drink the wine and enjoy it, but I sit around with some people I really admire as they try to distinguish between batch A and batch B. I must say, I listen attentively to try to learn and understand what it is exactly that they’re trying to express. Perhaps in the past people weren’t interested in those shades and subtleties so they never had to search for those words. Language has this powerful metaphoric aspect, so if you say something is like something—maybe with food the sky’s the limit—you can try to find words that can give people the impression of what it is that you’re saying. The wine thing has gotten… maybe the words are somewhat ridiculous, certainly in the hands of someone who is less than expert, but I’ve listened to some really sophisticated people and I think I understand how some phrases do get at some distinction. That’s what it really is in that area: the distinction between this particular sip and that sip, and why is this superior and why should we use this as a component of our best wine and not that. But I’m an amateur in that world.
RR: The thing that amazes me about the wine people is their taste memory. The really good wine people can conjure up what a ’62 Latour tasted like. They’ve got the flavor packed away back there in their brains.
FFC: Well, that’s their skill, that’s their discipline. We’ve been here in the Napa Valley for many years, and we make premium wine, and, you know, I’ve never interfered whatsoever, I would always say, “Well, I’ll drink it, and if I like it, I like it,” but you know, if I drink this glass and that glass usually I know which one I like better, but—I don’t know, I’m not an expert. Now I’m able to be here a little more, and I wanted to be able to have a more educated palette in terms of wine. I asked this gentle man who’s now our consulting winemaker, and I said, “You know what… what is it?” And he said, “Listen, I’ll explain to you very simply: It’s like being a cook—you go out there and you taste the grapes and say ‘Mmmm, oh yeah I like that, I wanna use that.’” You’re evaluating the ingredients that you’re gonna prepare a meal with, prepare a wine with. There’s a lot of laboratory analysis and profiles, but this guy prefers a much more natural approach to winemaking. Once I understood that, I thought, Yeah, you go out in the field and you taste the grapes, and if they taste like what you want to put in the thing you’re making, then good, you do it, go ahead. So winemakers are like chefs, and I could grasp that in a way I’d never understood so simply before, maybe because before there was a lot of analysis and lab numbers and stuff that seemed odd to make a beautiful glass of wine. And some emphasis does go to that. But it really comes down to your experience, what you’ve enjoyed in the past and then—as you say, whether it’s food or wine it really is in a way the same thing— you remember what brought you tremendous response and pleasure from the past and that’s stored away in the library in your mind. A lot of times we make something simple. In a way, there’s nothing simpler than a pizza. A pizza is basically a pie, pizza means pie, but when you get down to the variables, the water, the dough and the yeast, how it was prepared, the flour itself, you know, sometimes the simplest things can be the hardest to prepare.
RR: It’s the hardest because there’s nothing to hide behind.
FFC: And you have to know what it is in order to do it. If someone who’s never had a real Neapolitan Pizza— back in the ’40s in New York when I was a kid and had my first pizza, that had such an impression on me, that whatever comes later is always compared against what is the platonic, the perfect pizza.
RR: We all want the pizza of our childhood.
FFC: Definitely. Or even an espresso. What is simpler? One thing that drives me nuts in places is they let anyone make the espresso. In other words, you say, “Oh, I’ll have an espresso,” and the waiter goes up and takes the machine and does it. But if the espresso is made by the one person time after time after time, something so simple as just making an espresso, you know, how much pressure should be used when it’s tapped in, how was it ground, how fine is it, what is the temperature of the water, how long, how quickly should the mixture seem to come through into the cup, someone who does it day after day after day gets the knack, and that one barista—it’s important that he or she has that responsibility—not flooded with the foamy milk Starbucks-style—but anything simple, a lot of it has to do with having a perfect one once in your life that you are trying to recreate each time.
RR: Exactly. And I find as I get older, my tastes get simpler and simpler. I’m less and less interest in complicated, sauced food. What I want is very simple food— but perfect.
FFC: As little done… I mean, if you have wonderful ingredients and then you do as little as possible to them— for example, what could be so simple as a boiled egg?
RR: Oh no, but a boiled egg is really difficult: there’s just one single moment when it’s right.
FFC: I don’t think I’ve ever ordered soft boiled eggs from any situation that ever came out right. By the way, I invented my own method of making soft-boiled eggs— would you like to hear?
RR: I would absolutely like to.
FFC: I take the eggs, and I put them in the saucepan with cold water, and I put that right on the fire, and I have no timer. Then I kinda just do whatever I’m doing and I notice when the water comes to a boil. Then I count to around twenty or thirty, and take out the eggs. So I use the boiling water as my timer—and I hit it every time, pretty much.
RR: So you like it so the white is just congealed, but just.
FFC: Yeah, I don’t know how to say it, but I like it that when you cut the top off and you look, the white—the albumen—isn’t a gooey thing. It’s definitely white, but the whole thing is tender enough that when you put in the little piece of toast it pierces right through and is coated with the yolk part, perfectly cooked.
RR: That’s exactly how I like them.
FFC: I guess that’s three minutes, but I don’t know. I trust putting it without a timer into the water now, but if you were to take it out as soon as it boils it would be just a little too soon. But if you count to twenty, looking at the boiling water—
FFC: —and then take it out… it’s very important as soon as you take it out to put it right under cold water so that it stops that process. That’s a big thing people don’t realize when they cook, is that they wait until something is ready or until the pasta is al dente or the dish is perfectly cooked, but when you take it out it keeps cooking.
FFC: You’ve got to take it out a little before it’s ready, same with vegetables.
RR: Yeah, with everything really. You have got to count on that time at the end.
FFC: You take everything out a little too early and then when you actually get it on the plate or get it to people, it will be perfect. Well, that’s what we’re talking about: perfection.
RR: We are talking about perfection.
III. ON GETTING KIDS TO EAT WELL
RR: I have definite feelings on this. I had a kid who didn’t eat, which everybody thought was hilarious because I was a restaurant critic and food editor, and my child ate five white foods and never touched a fruit or vegetable. What I thought was, Mealtime cannot be torture. I never wanted him to think that eating isn’t fun, and so we sat down together and he ate whatever he wanted, and I deliberately sat on my hands and said nothing. I didn’t worry about it, even though he was this skinny little thing. And then, somewhere about the age of ten, food kicked in for him and he started eating.
FFC: My wife is a good cook but she doesn’t love to cook, so only on a few occasions do we get her to cook. Otherwise I cook all the time, but Thanksgiving was always a special treat, because she did the turkey and the stuffing according to her grandfather’s recipes. It was such a ritual, and then before you know it my boy started to be the one who made the pumpkin pies, and he would make them from scratch—from pumpkins, not canned pumpkin. He would make the pumpkin pie just as someone like my daughter-in-law would make the real, old recipe of the cranberries out of the whole cranberries. What I’ve learned now with bigger kids and with grandchildren and stuff is that family— and we don’t live close to each other so we just don’t get to have dinner every Sunday, which would be wonderful—but what I notice is that there’s a certain joy to the family having dinner together, and, you know, my son or my daughter making those things that we always love to have together. As children get beyond the toddler stage, family meals become a people coming together, enjoying all their favorite things together. I love the ritual of that. In my life I always had dinner at the table with my family, mainly because my father was a musician, he had to go off and play the show or whatever, so at six o’clock or whatever the time was, you couldn’t be late. And as a result we always had a meal with the whole family sitting down. Just recently we went to visit Las Vegas where Sofia is shooting a movie, and we went to Nobu there and everyone got to order their favorite things and what have you, and I realized that after little kids turn ten, that this group pleasure kicks in beyond, you know, just being with friends, which is also a group pleasure. Everyone grew up with favorites, and we got to travel when we were a young family, so going to these various places where you could only get this specialty, or the one place out of Rome that makes the chicken under the stone or… you know, you have this wonderful family recall of this ritual.
IV. ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EATING WITH FAMILY AND WITH FRIENDS
RR: I think of it all as one, and I always try to get as many friends as possible at the table. We don’t have a large family: it’s just my husband, my son, and myself. And I always felt it was important for us all to sit down to dinner together, that we needed it to be a ritual. In fact, we have breakfast together, as well—a real meal with fresh juice and cooked food. I’ll always make whatever anybody wants, but I feel we need to be together in the morning. It’s the place where you touch, as a family, before you go off for the day. But at night I always want as many people as possible around the table, so if there are friends around I’m always saying, “come join us.” Family and friends, it’s all one big thing for me. What I wanted most was for Nick to have great memories of being at the table. I think that’s something you carry with you, always, that you never forget. That moment when you’re relaxed, when you’re finally quiet enough to sit and enjoy the food—that’s the moment when something else happens. It is the time when people have real discussions and pay attention to each other. It’s such a precious time. I mean, my favorite moments are, we’re finished dinner and we’re still sitting there just talking and talking and talking, sometimes for two or three hours, long after dinner is over. We’re still sitting there, and it’s not about the food…
FFC: Us too, except we’re still sitting there, we’re still eating. The other thing about Italians that is so funny is that they can be in the middle of this huge meal together, and what are they talking about? They’re talking about something else they’re gonna cook the next day!