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Canadian TV chef Laura Calder takes her French cooking global

No kitchen to call her own: After a decade in France, 'I haven't gotten comfortable in Canada, weirdly,' says Laura Calder, who hosts the award-winning French Food at Home.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The host of Canadian TV series French Food at Home doesn't actually have one.

Laura Calder, who has spent much of the past decade in France, says she's living out of a suitcase, having given up her Toronto apartment about a month ago.

Her current displacement isn't for lack of trying. Ms. Calder, who is originally from New Brunswick, left France a year and a half ago with the intention of establishing roots in Toronto.

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Yet, she says, "I haven't gotten comfortable in Canada, weirdly. I mean … I'm fine. I function fine, but I don't feel at home. … Instead of really settling down after a year and a half, I just went right back to what I always do, which is put everything in storage, and just put the rest in a suitcase and wheel my life around behind me."

Even if she did have a place to call home, she probably wouldn't have much time to spend there.

This month is setting out to be a particularly eventful one for Ms. Calder.

Last week, French Food at Home with Laura Calder won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for the best television series in a studio or fixed location, beating out heavyweight U.S. productions Iron Chef America and Barefoot Contessa for the title.

For much of May, she is promoting her show in Singapore and Malaysia, where she says it's been airing for the past couple of years. ("It's on Asian Food Channel. It's on in South America, dubbed into Spanish. It's on in Dubai, it's on in Hong Kong, it's on in Finland, it's on in Portugal.") And finally, French Food at Home is slated to debut in the United States on the new Cooking Channel, which begins broadcasting May 31.

The James Beard award, known as the "Oscars of the food world," and the introduction of her show to a U.S. audience are likely to propel Ms. Calder to a new level of stardom.

And Ms. Calder expresses a certain unease about fame.

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For instance, she's careful about protecting the privacy of her parents, and is reluctant to reveal the location of her rural family home in New Brunswick.

A self-described "hermit," she says she finds it unsettling when strangers recognize her.

"It's a bit freaky to have people kind of talk to you on the street, or whatever. Or talk to you like they know you when they don't," she says, adding that it's particularly strange to receive unsolicited invitations for dinner dates. "I don't know how they think I'm supposed to respond to that."

She acknowledges people often wonder why, at the age of 40, she's unmarried and has no children.

It was a conscious decision against marriage, children and a conventional office job that led her to a career in cooking.

In her university years, Ms. Calder wanted to be a diplomat. She studied linguistics, Western culture and civilization, and earned a master's degree from the London School of Economics.

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She found herself working in journalism, then in public relations. Finally in her late 20s, she decided she wasn't happy with her career path.

She took a leave of absence to attend cooking school for six months, then set off for Napa, Calif., to work for a wine expert. While attending a food-writing conference, she met Anne Willan, cookbook author and founder of LaVarenne Cooking School, which was then located in Burgundy. Ms. Willan offered her a seven-month contract to work with her in France. So, at the age of 29, Ms. Calder seized the opportunity, leaving her public relations job and a fiancé.

"I don't want to use that word 'dumped,' " she says of the breakup. "Someone wrote that in a piece [about me]and it was very hurtful to the person and a crappy word to use."

Rather, "I think it was a whole decision … It wasn't the person. It was, 'Do I want to get married and have kids and have a job?' "

It's a decision that she has occasionally questioned. "Last year, I really thought, where did the time go and did I do the right thing?"

Ms. Calder stayed in France after the contract ended, alternating between Burgundy and Paris for most of her 30s. She wrote her own cookbook, French Food at Home, in 2003, but it failed to take off, since France's refusal to join the invasion of Iraq at the time thwarted her efforts to promote the book in the United States.

It was, however, through this failure, while she was figuring out what to do next, that a friend suggested she try cooking on television. By 2005, she was flying back and forth between France and Halifax to tape French Food at Home with Laura Calder.

Eventually, tired of travelling and realizing her media contacts were here in Canada, she moved to Toronto.

Ms. Calder acknowledges she doesn't watch food television, or any television at all. She has only seen her James Beard competitor Barefoot Contessa a few times at other people's houses, and she has never watched an episode of Iron Chef America, although the latter is inviting her to be a judge later this year.

"You start questioning yourself [if you watch other cooking shows]" she explains. "I've been told, watch TV. I've been told it by executives, by producers … and I always say, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,' and then I never do."

Once she returns from her promotional tour in Asia, Ms. Calder says she'll head to Vancouver for the summer to finish a cookbook on hosting dinner parties. She is also working on a new show, which may have her roving from location to location, although the concept is still in development.

So, Ms. Calder may have to live out of her suitcase a while longer.

"It's constant upheaval, so maybe the food is a constant thing," she says. "Wherever you go, you can kind of rustle up a little comfort in a pan or something."

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