Illustrated portrait of Madelaine Bullwinkel, AM'68

(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

You can fix it

Advice for cooking and life from chef Madelaine Bullwinkel, AM’68

As a young woman, Madelaine Bullwinkel, AM’68 (art history), taught herself to cook. She opened her cooking school, Chez Madelaine, in her Hinsdale, Illinois, kitchen in 1977, and has held classes there ever since. She also teaches at Chicago’s Alliance Française and for UChicago Alumni. Last spring she offered classes via Zoom for the first time. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Alumni Association class description calls you a “cyber chef.”

That was my daughter’s idea. She’s 42, so she’s not really a kid. But she’s in the entertainment business—she’s a character animator. I pick up on her vocabulary.

Have you offered cooking classes by Zoom before?

We did a test run a couple weeks ago and it went very well.

I’ve been doing this for 40-odd years. It’s a little strange to talk into an iPhone, but I did some television appearances a while back, so I’ve had some experience.

How did you learn to cook?

I have a degree now, but I’m basically self-taught. Cooking and art both are things you can teach yourself. I’m still doing it at 77.

When did you start?

Probably in high school. My mom was a from-scratch cook, but she didn’t encourage me much.

I loved to bake, which is often the starting point for young people. That’s counterintuitive, because cooking is easier. Baking is restrictive. But kids are used to being taught things in a rote manner, and baking is dessert. I liked making Hungarian desserts for my father.

Then I found out that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Did it work for you?

I made a Dobos torte for my boyfriend during my college years. Dobos torte is a seven-layer Hungarian cake that does not use flour. It uses breadcrumbs and walnuts. You cook the layers on the bottom of a cake pan. You layer it with a hazelnut buttercream and have a caramel topping. It was exhausting. It is a labor of love.

And we were married for 50 years. And I never made it afterward.

How did you start teaching?

I was pretty bored in my house when my kids went to school. I was not a club lady. I didn’t play tennis or bridge or golf. I had asked as many questions of art history as I had at the time.

People would ask, how did you make that crust? They wanted to know why I was so successful when I cooked. So I said, well come over to my house and I’ll show you.

The class started with six people at a time, in my nine-by-twelve kitchen. Basically it was therapy for me. And it seemed to be therapy for them too. We always sat down and we ate what we had made. It was a way of being together.

It was on a weekday and it was mostly women. I remember one time my daughter had fallen down at school in the play yard and needed clothes. So I said, class, carry on, I’ve got to drive over with some clothes for Celia and I’ll be back.

It was something I could manage with kids. I had a hard time trying to write. I loved textile design, but that required a workshop and a place to sell my designs. Cooking is so essential, it was doable.

And then you had some professional training?

I went to L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland. I took—because I had two little kids—their two-week accelerated course, which was basically for caterers. I found out I had taught myself well. It gave me confidence, and I’ve been learning ever since.

Your Alliance Française bio mentions that you teach “the whys as well as the how” of French cooking. That made me think of Alma Lach, EX’38, author of Hows and Whys of French Cooking (UChicago Press, 1974). Did you know her?

I did know her. She was a special lady. Unfortunately, I only met her at the very end of her life.

I’ve always felt it was important to know why you were doing something and not just follow directions. Because then when something went wrong, you had at least some kind of line on how to fix it.

A lot of people don’t like cooking because they don’t think about cooking while they’re doing it. They’re just following a recipe and thinking about the day they spent at the office. But the more you can think about why and what you’re doing, about the ingredients, the more satisfying it is.

What mistakes do beginning cooks make most frequently?

Without a sharp knife, you are doomed to frustration. Home cooks don’t know how to hold a knife. They’re afraid, and maybe they should be.

You have to show people how to hold a knife and how to hold the food to protect yourself. After that, everything is easy. Really.

Can everyone learn to cook? Or are some people hopeless cases?

Some people get it immediately. Other people really do struggle. I think part of it is a psychological barrier. I’m not equipped to deal with that.

Some of those French sauces are so tricky.

I have some high-tech solutions. First of all, a digital thermometer. I use an infrared thermometer—the ones that they’re selling to take your temperature for COVID-19. You have to put that on a grill, or shine it in an oven, to find out if what the oven thermostat says is the same as what the temperature is in reality. Because all equipment goes out of calibration. 

Do you always cook fresh food for yourself?

I’m pretty much a purist, because it just tastes better. I’m very hostile to factory food. The quicker you can eat fresh food, from the time it came out of the ground, the better it tastes.

No guilty pleasures?

I would get a cone from McDonald’s every once in a while. This is the first time I’ve ever mentioned that. I haven’t had one of those cones in a long, long time, but I do know that if you leave one in the sink—if you don’t finish—it won’t melt by the next morning.

What do you think about all the bread baking people are doing during the pandemic?

It’s wonderful. Bread is one of the holy trinity, because it’s made with a product that’s living. Cheese, wine, and bread—that’s the holy trinity.

Frankly I think they’re doing it because they’re bored. I don’t see anything spiritually uplifting about it. But I hope they stick to it, because it does taste better.

Baking bread is a superb example of how you really need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing to be successful. You have to know that yeast is a living thing and has certain requirements. 

Do you have a go-to French recipe for beginners?

I could say an omelet, but an omelet is deceptive, because it is also a recipe given to French chefs on their graduation exam. It’s hard to get right. But that’s one of the first things we do in beginner classes. Working with eggs is a great way to start.

What are your top five pantry must-haves?

Mustard, of course. Oil, vinegar. We don’t count salt and pepper, do we? I always have flour and yeast.

What is the most common cooking truism that isn’t actually true?

If you do something wrong, you’ve failed and have to throw it out.

Yesterday my granddaughters and I forgot to put flour in a chocolate cake for my daughter-in-law’s birthday. So it ends up being like a soufflé, which means it rises in the oven, and once you take it out, it goes down.

Well, we didn’t have time to do it again. Here were these little girls! Things were on the line. 

How old?

Six and eight.

Oh dear.

Yeah. We had doubled it, because they wanted to make two layers. So I whipped up an Italian meringue, which is the thing you make meringue mushrooms with when you make a Bûche de Noël. It’s a beautiful white frothy frosting. And it’s plentiful.

We decided we had to get some other flavor in there. We put a couple of drops of rose essence in so it smelled a little bit like a flower. And we put that between the layers, and covered it and put it on top, and it looked gorgeous. Then my older granddaughter stenciled a letter S—for Stephanie—on top of the cake with cocoa. So we saved it. And actually, it tasted divine.

Cooking is really a life lesson. That’s why I like to teach kids. You lose at Parcheesi, you’ve got to deal with it. But if you make a mistake in cooking, you can fix it.

Learn more about Bullwinkel and get her recipe for Blueberry Jam with Mint in “So You’ve Baked Your Own Bread. Now What?” from the Summer/20 issue of the Core.