Americans In Paris On Food, Culture Shock

By CBS News' Brian Goldsmith.

Patricia and Walter Wells have lived most people's fantasies about expatriate life in France. Since 1980, these two American journalists have called Paris home (and-lucky them-they've called Provence their country home). Walter Wells was the longtime executive editor of the International Herald Tribune. Patricia Wells was (and still is) an immensely influential restaurant critic and culinary guru-one who simultaneously broke the twin glass ceilings of the French foodie establishment: no foreigners, and no women. This month, they've published a memoir of their years together - "We've Always Had Paris." CBSNews.com caught up with the Wellses in California.

CBSNews.com: I'd like to ask about when you first left New York for Paris. You were happy, successful newlyweds, working at the New York Times. What led you to give up that life to move to France?

Patricia Wells: Well, we didn't really think we were giving up that life at the time, because we thought we were coming for two years. And we kind of thought that the Times would look kindly upon us if we wanted to come back. And at the end of two years, we said, "Well, let's stay another year." And at the end of three years, we said, "Who said we should go back?" So in our minds, we weren't giving anything up big, because we thought we'd come back to New York.

CBSNews.com: Well, except you gave up a staff job to be a freelancer.

Patricia Wells: I did. That's true.

Walter Wells: And that was a big thing to give up. It was a lot harder for her than it was for me. I went from one job to another, although in a very different kind of atmosphere.

Patricia Wells: No, it was hard. It was a big gamble, and thank God a great gamble that paid off.

CBSNews.com: How difficult was that adjustment, at first? You arrived in France. You describe in the book how lonely it was sometimes. Both of you struggled with the language. How did you learn to adjust?

Patricia Wells: Well, I cried a lot in the beginning. Running helped a lot. I used to have a mantra that was, if I ran five miles before nine in the morning, nothing bad could happen to me the rest of the day. And I still use that, and it seems to have worked out okay, because I don't have too many bad things that happen to me.

CBSNews.com: And neither of you were fluent in French. You've obviously become fluent since then.

Walter Wells: Yeah, we're fluent. Fluent doesn't mean grammatical, you know. We speak French like a Spanish cow.

CBSNews.com: Patricia, your picture accompanied your reviews for L'Express when you were their food critic. Did you worry about objectivity, when people in restaurants knew who you were?

Patricia Wells: No, because to tell you the truth, most French critics announce themselves. And they're very well-known, and you couldn't pretend you were someone else. And I always reserved under another name. Even though I had my photo, most people didn't recognize me. So it was really not hard. The only place I would never reserve under another name was a restaurant where they really knew me.

I still feel, even to this day, that we're guests in the country of France. And we should do as the French do. We should follow their rules, not make up our own.

CBSNews.com: And you don't worry that you ever got special treatment because somebody recognized your face?

Patricia Wells: Well, you know that you're getting special treatment. But most of the time, it's very funny. I used to have restaurateurs who would beg me. They'd send me letters. These were the days before email and so on. And they'd send me letters, begging me to come. And I'd go, and they wouldn't recognize me. So you know, it wasn't as hard as it is in the U.S.

CBSNews.com: And Walter, was it ever difficult for you, once your wife attained this great success, being Mr. Patricia Wells? I mean, you were after all the executive editor of the International Herald Tribune and obviously very accomplished in your own right. Was it ever a problem for you to sit at these dinners and have everybody fawn over your wife, and nobody pay attention to you?

Walter Wells: It still isn't a problem today. No, Patricia worked extremely hard to arrive at her success, and her fame, if that's what it is. I've always been very, very proud of it. You know, I had my own success to be happy about, and so I was never jealous. And it was never a problem for me to be Mr. Patricia Wells.

Patricia Wells: Though he did used to come home and say, "Your job is a lot more fun than mine."

CBSNews.com: Well, I don't think anybody would argue with that! In the book, you talk about how you're had a conversation with your friend Jeffrey Garten about having a celebrity wife.

Walter Wells: Yeah, that was really amusing. His wife Ina Garten, who's now very well-known, was about to do a book, and then do a TV show. And Jeffrey and Ina are old friends, and he said to me, "Now, just give me some advice on this. How should I deal with the fact that, you know, my wife is about to become very famous?" And I just said, "Jeffrey, just stand on the sidelines and applaud."

Patricia Wells: Isn't that the sweetest thing a husband can say? It brings tears to my eyes.

CBSNews.com: When you got to France, Patricia, I think that the first book you wanted to do was The Food Lover's Guide to Paris. What was the gap in the marketplace that you thought that would fill? What hadn't been done that the Food Lover's Guide set out to accomplish?

Patricia Wells: Well, there were so many guides that were restaurant guides. And I always wondered, what do these critics do between meals? I mean, they have to go to wine bars and sample pastries and go to boulangeries and so on. And so I felt, you know, as a journalist, it's a book that I wanted to be able to use.

And so I left New York with that idea, approached all the major editors that did food books. And they all said, you know, "Great idea, but we won't ever publish it, because it'll never sell." So, being a person who's very determined and doesn't give up easily, I began writing the book, chapter by chapter, in Travel and Leisure Magazine and the New York Times travel section on Sundays. And after about a year or so of doing that, I got the contract for my first book. And it's kind of gone on from there.

CBSNews.com: And did it sell like gangbusters initially, or did it take some time to build?

Patricia Wells: No, it did very, very well. We were lucky. It came out in May of 1984, when the dollar was very strong, just climbing, climbing, climbing.

Walter Wells: More Americans were traveling to Paris and to France, and that helped the market for the book.

CBSNews.com: And Walter, when you arrived in 1980, the International Herald Tribune was very different than we see it as American tourists in Europe today. Can you sort of walk us through some of the changes that you helped to initiate, and how the paper has really transformed itself in those years?

Walter Wells: Well, of course. When I went to the Herald Tribune, it had a vast global reputation. Everybody who knew the paper really loved it, so, and I was going from the New York Times. I thought I was going from one big institution to another. And when I got to Paris, I was really, really shocked, I guess, to find that what looked so big from the outside was really this tiny and under-resourced little thing that had not enough staff, had no reporters, and no money to do anything.

At that point, we distributed only in Europe. But we added print sites, the next one was in Hong Kong. And that just sort of moved us to a new level. We became a bridgehead in the early days of globalization. And it was a paper that really began serving an international community, not just Americans. We think of it as our newspaper when we travel. But it's really a newspaper also for businessmen and people who are involved in government and policy, generally. And that was always a great, just a great thrill. We built on that and sort of went from strength to strength, and now, like every other newspaper I guess, it's struggling a lot.

CBSNews.com: And what led to the decision of the Washington Post to sell their share of the Herald Tribune to the New York Times?

Walter Wells: Oh, well, I think it depends on whom you talk to about what led to their decision. The ordinary take on that is that the Times just elbowed them out. A more nuanced explanation is that the New York Times had international ambitions. And the Washington Post was very satisfied with what the Trib was, and what it was at that point was a money-losing operation. The Times wanted to expand internationally.

And they wanted to use the Trib as the stepping stone for doing that. And so they strongly invited the Washington Post to leave the partnership. There's a lot of bitterness about that. That was sort of hard to live through, except for me. I had already retired, on my first practice retirement - an unsuccessful retirement.

When the Times pushed out the Post, bought out their shares, they asked me to come back as executive editor. And I thought I was being hired as a temp. I told them at the Times, I would give them three months or six. And I wound up staying three years. And it was the best three years of my career.

CBSNews.com: And what do you think made those years so productive?

Walter Wells: Well, because for the first time ever, the Trib had serious money to invest. We put space in the paper, added contented. I hired, we hired about 20 reporters around the world. We opened a satellite newsroom in Hong Kong, so that we could have a viable Asian edition. It was fantastic. It was all because of the New York Times' investment.

CBSNews.com: Patricia, back to you. Did you ever find, over the course of your career, any resentment that an American woman was reviewing French restaurants, was making judgments about French cuisine and you weren't, obviously, French?

Patricia Wells: Oh, the French critics, the French male critics -- they're only male -- hated me. They hated me. And Joel Robuchon used to say, "I can't tell you what they're saying about you, because it's too nasty." But I can imagine. It was so funny because I never wanted to be a member of their club anyway.

But I would go to events, and I would see the other French critics. And there was one in particular that every time I saw him, I would be reintroduced to him. And then after about 20 times, he finally said, "Oh yes, Patricia, you changed your hair."

CBSNews.com: And do you think it was more about sexism or was it just that they resented an American?

Patricia Wells: Both, a little bit of both. Well, actually, it was probably more sexism, because I think if it had been a male American critic, they might have brought him into the fold. I'm quite sure of that.

Walter Wells: There's just one other point there, Brian, and that is that Patricia was playing by American journalistic rules. She did just very basic reporting. And that was different -- not to be disrespectful of our French friends -- but you know, the approach was very, very different.

CBSNews.com: What did they do differently?

Walter Wells: Well, I like to say that all of France is a club. And certainly, there's a very tight club of restaurants and food criticism. And you were supposed to be a member of the club, so you're supposed to behave in a certain way. You're supposed to follow those rules, and Patricia came as someone totally outside those rules. And she continued acting like an American journalist, and that created resentments.

CBSNews.com: So Patricia, what were the rules, and how did you break them?

Walter Wells: Well, the tradition there was and still is, they never pay for their meals. You know, they show up, we used to joke, with the feed bag on. They expect to be treated like royalty and if they're not, they give a bad review. It was just the tradition there.

And I never bought into that. I would reserve under another name, and we paid our bills and I think that I gained the respect of a lot of French chefs that way, because they had never seen this working this way. And so, I was changing traditions for the French critics. They had a real cushy life, and they were older gentlemen who just kind of didn't want anyone to come in and rock the boat.

CBSNews.com: What does keep you both in France today?

Walter Wells: It's sort of hard to explain, because we are American. And that's our identity. But we're very much at home there.

Walter Wells: I think we stay there because we love our lives. And we're continuing it. We've got a long way to go yet, we hope. And we have a lot of work to do yet there. Between the cooking school and books and maybe another book together, we hope.

CBSNews.com: Well, let me ask you about the cooking school. You talk in the book about how originally, you thought it would be fun, and it would help you both financially. Has it worked out the way you hoped?

Patricia Wells: Oh, beyond our wildest dreams. I mean, it's exhausting. It's a lot of work. It's very intense. But it is an extension of my passion. It's going beyond journalism and sharing the experiences and the connections we have in France, whether it's in Paris or Provence, and what I really hope it is, well, I know it is. It's sharing our lifestyle, and sharing our whole group of friends in France.

CBSNews.com: And what has it taught you about what Americans are looking for in food?

Patricia Wells: Well, we do a lot of talk about technique and so on and so forth. But I think more than that, it's ingredients. It's about shopping. It's about simplicity. It's about staying with the seasons. And it's also about having a good time while you're doing it.

CBSNews.com: What are the biggest misconceptions about the French that Americans have, and what are the biggest misconceptions about Americans that the French have?

Walter Wells: Well, the biggest misconception that the Americans have about the French, in my experience, we expect them to be arrogant. We expect them to be difficult. We expect them to be snooty. What I like to say is, when you walk out the door, if you're looking for a fight, you'll probably find one before you get very far. And I think a lot of Americans do come to France expecting trouble. And they find it. The French have a different demeanor.

Americans are so open and so accepting. And the French are very conventional. They follow rules, and they are surprised when other people don't know the rules and don't follow them. The misconception that they have about us, well, the common expression is Americans are big children. And they think that we play games. We are self-indulgent. One of the things that they say, something I use in the book, is that it's not the land of liberty, it's the land of puberty.

Patricia Wells: And we're loud. We're so loud.

Walter Wells: We are loud.

By Brian Goldsmith

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