One of her most popular cooking classes was called How to Boil Water 101, appropriately enough. As a prominent Twin Cities culinary teacher, Lois Lee taught students to make delicious food following basic techniques.
“She taught people the things they weren’t taught,” said her daughter, Nancy Horsch of New Hope. “Stuff like how to sift flour, how to flavor things with different spices.”
Lee, who in addition to teaching cooking owned a gourmet cookware store, died Jan. 22 of natural causes at her home in Plymouth. She was 95.
Renowned Napa Valley, Calif., restaurateur and Golden Valley native Cindy Pawlcyn, who considers Lee one of her mentors (another was Julia Child), described Lee’s cooking style as “no nonsense.”
“It was all about flavor — she didn’t have anything on the plate that didn’t belong there,” Pawlcyn said. She wouldn’t have bothered with trendy frills like culinary foam, for example. “She was more about the pleasures of life and living a high quality but simple life.”
Born Lois Jean Boller, Lee grew up in Oak Park, Ill., where she developed a love of cooking while accompanying her mother to culinary classes in Chicago. She married Walter Lee in 1954 and they moved to Golden Valley shortly afterward. He died in 1992.
In the early years of their marriage, Lee loved trying new recipes and entertaining the residents of her close-knit Golden Valley neighborhood.
“Everybody looked forward to my mom having a dinner party,” Horsch said.
In 1970, at the suggestion of a friend, Lee opened a high-end cookware store called La Cuvette in Golden Valley, Horsch said. “She researched it, my dad helped her, and she brought many of her pots and pans from France.”
She directed Cinnamon Toast, a cooking school in Minnetonka, and taught at Kitchen Window in Minneapolis and Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul.
A specialist in French cooking, Lee knew Child, who wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and starred in the pioneering cooking show “The French Chef.” Charismatic and funny, Lee got to know other famous cookbook authors and celebrity chefs including Jacques Pépin, Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay.
Yvonne Moody, another local cooking teacher, traveled with Lee to culinary conventions and cooking tours in France.
“Lois was fun, she was smart, we just clicked,” said Moody, who then lived in North Oaks and now lives in Oak Park, Ill.
“There was something about her — everybody fell in love with her.” said Pawlcyn, who calls Lee her “professional mom.”
As a teenager, Pawlcyn took a cooking class that Lee taught and they became lifelong friends. Lee offered the younger woman guidance on jobs, college and other major decisions.
“She was a genuine teacher — the kind of classic teacher who just gives of themselves constantly,” Pawlcyn said.
They both loved cookbooks, said Pawlcyn, who has written five of her own, one of which won a James Beard Foundation Award. (Pawlcyn has also received several Beard nominations for Outstanding Restaurateur and Best Chef: California.)
“I remember her chutney recipe,” Pawlcyn said. “I don’t buy chutney because of her. It needs this much acid, this much sweet. … The ratio she taught me of sweet and sour volume gave me the roadmap to making tomato chutney, pear chutney, peach chutney.”
In addition to Horsch, Lee’s survivors include two sons, Warren Lee of Ketchum, Idaho, and Bob Lee of Scottsdale, Ariz., four grandchildren and seven grandchildren.
Katy Read writes for the Star Tribune’s Inspired section. She previously covered Carver County and western Hennepin County as well as aging, workplace issues and other topics since she began at the paper in 2011. Prior to that, she was a reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, La., and the Duluth News-Tribune and spent 15 years as a freelance writer for national and regional magazines.
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