For over twenty years, British chef, journalist, and food historian Sam Wydymus ran the award-winning Coastguard Pub in Kent, England. Her time there was full of experimentation; among other things, she set up the UK’s only historical food festival and started baking bread using a recipe from ancient Babylonia.
Today, as the managing director and head chef of Terroir 63 in Olliergues, Wydymus continues to innovate. Her various projects draw not only from her diverse culinary experiences in Britain but also from the gastronomy of Auvergne. I caught up with Wydymus to learn more about her life and career in France profonde.
A. D. Manns: When did you first start taking an interest in the culinary arts?
Sam Wydymus: I first started cooking from necessity. Despite training to be a ballerina, my first job was as a stage manager on London musicals and by the time we finished work the only places open to eat were expensive nightclubs or fast-food haunts. I started cooking for myself and ended up feeding most of my colleagues.
AM: Was there a particular experience that inspired you to choose that career path?
SW: I love food. Not only eating and cooking, but learning about ingredients, producers and recipes. I especially love researching local recipes and the stories behind a particular ingredient or cooking method. It gives you a relatable insight into different lives, cultures and social history.
AM: Why did you decide to move to Auvergne? What about the region do you like the most?
SW: I could say we moved to the Auvergne for the good of our four children, but secretly it may have been the lure of the cheese! We live in such a beautiful area which reminds my husband of his Scottish home and Olliergues (our village) is close to the mountains, swimming lakes and wild, open spaces, yet, we are less than an hour from the bustle of Clermont Ferrand. Auvergne produce is undoubtedly the best in France and such a pleasure to work with.
AM: How was your French when you first arrived? Any language tips for other English-speaking expatriates?
SW: Within a few hours of arriving in our new home, I realised my French was non-existent. This was a bit of a surprise to me as not only was my grandmother French, I’d also passed at ‘O’ level, yet my Franglais was suddenly incomprehensible, even to me. I tried all sorts of courses and language hacks but in the end attempting to chat with my French neighbours was the best method. It is horribly frustrating when you fail to communicate as well as you can in your native tongue but, if you are willing to make many, many mistakes you’ll start to improve and make new friends in the process.
AM: What did you find most challenging about setting up your restaurant, Terroir 63? Any advice for other restaurateurs looking to set up a business in Auvergne?
SW: We ran an award-winning restaurant in the UK for over twenty years so found that the formalities of setting up the restaurant were familiar. This helped greatly as the language barrier posed a few issues and the paperwork was quite involved. Luckily, we had an enormous amount of support from our village and the town hall. Restoring and re-opening the restaurant was very much a community project and we are very proud to be part of it. It’s also lovely that the locals trusted their lunch to a British cook!
AM: What’s the “CheeseSkool”?
SW: CheeseSkool is a virtual journey around the Auvergne, discovering over 20 Auvergne cheeses alongside local produce and drink pairings. Over 2.5 hours we disclose the myths and legends behind the cheeses and the famous produce of the Auvergne. Originally, CheeseSkool was invented for our English speaking visitors but surprisingly, at least 70% of our clients are French. Luckily, the cheese speaks all languages which makes up for my less than perfect French!
AM: Do you have a favourite Auvergnat dish? Which dishes do you enjoy making the most?
SW: I’ve collected many Auvergnat recipes from my neighbours that I love, all with the amazing local produce at their core but it’s the huge variety of cheeses that I adore. I really enjoy visiting the markets and local producers never failing to discover new edible treasures Terroir 63’s menus are unique every day, inspired by everything around us — including the weather!