Danika Boyle

By Jardine Libaire
Photography by Holly Bronko

As the owner of the culinary studio Petite Pêche and Company, Danika Boyle is that lovely and rare thing: a driven hedonist. Her company, which offers tours in Paris, Provence and Italy, as well as cooking classes out of a renovated East Austin church, keeps her very busy. But spending time with Boyle—braising lamb in the kitchen or wandering a market in search of the perfect artichoke—you see that her love of food is the old-fashioned, earnest kind, à la M.F.K. Fisher or Julia Child. There’s nothing coy about it.

Boyle translates this sensibility to her tours, which began in the summer of 2009 at a villa in Aix-en-Provence and have been going strong ever since. The excursions are based on seasonal events like the South of France’s lavender harvests or Sicilian markets, and are less cooking-class trips than explorations of sustainable living and eating. The groups visit saffron farms and cherry orchards, honey shops and ancient bakeries—tasting and discovering along the way. Boyle says her goal is to get people to a destination and then step back and let the experience carry them.

Back home in Austin, Boyle’s cooking classes have the same nucleus as the tours: teaching the basic pleasures and principles of eating and cooking in the context of community. She points out that, although sustainability and knowing a food’s source is considered a trend on the rise in this country, it’s not a trend at all. “The trend,” she says, “is the fact that we became unsustainable.

Raised in South Texas, Boyle came from a family responsible for one of the first creameries in the state. Her gastronomic influences include maternal ancestors from Alsace, but it was Boyle’s paternal Mexican grandmother who taught her to cook. She says the barely five-foot-tall spitfire never measured anything, but each dish was a work of art. She remembers her yard—dense with irises and mango, lime and avocado trees—and her tendency to throw odds and ends out the kitchen window as she cooked. Boyle also studied at the Sorbonne, but she credits the Parisian markets and restaurants and, perhaps more importantly, the homemade North African dinners offered by the Ivorian landlords of her tiny pied-à-terre overlooking the Eiffel Tower as her true culinary education.

A good market, to borrow from French writer Émile Zola, is the artery of any city, and so that’s where Boyle always begins. At home in Austin, she visits the Austin Farmers’ Market every Wednesday and Saturday, and seeks out markets when traveling. She loves Melbourne, for example, and its magnificent open-air market where she can stroll and buy oysters, eat sausage and get a hot coffee. “Cities that speak to me are cities that support and maintain local food,” she says, and she believes a bond is formed among citizens in such places. Watching her tour group happily communicate with the vendors in Paris—with no shared spoken language—via proffered samples, tastes and pantomimes is a small triumph of human connection for her.

Boyle loves the natural limitations a local market imposes on a menu; French gastronomy, in fact, derives from shortage and necessity. “Look at French onion soup, which is made from the ends of onions and from stale bread,” she notes. The women who cooked those dishes didn’t have the Food Network. They had to be creative on their own, and the process yielded a legendary cuisine. If you cook and eat with the seasons, which Boyle considers essential, you’ll be pressed into innovation. “If you have to make fresh peas for a month and a half, you’re going to learn how to make them so many different ways,” Boyle says.

Boyle notes the return of the chef’s garden in Austin as a signal of needed change, and she thinks the luxury of simplicity is being resurrected in this country. Combine fresh-grown herbs, quality olive oil and Parmesan, and good salt and ground pepper with almost anything and voilá. Cooking with natural elements is not just healthful and delicious, it’s cost-effective. “If you know how to cook using pure ingredients,” she says, “it’s faster than Hamburger Helper.”

Boyle’s crusade is a sensual one; she’ll take you overseas for a wild strawberry and a glass of Bandol rosé, or teach you to cook chocolate- and red wine-braised short ribs here at home. What she really wants, though, is for you to forget the recipe and remember the adventure.

For more information, visit petitepecheandco.com.