One Souffle at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France

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Life stories and recipes from founder of the legendary La Varenne Cooking School and—along with Julia Child—one of the English-speaking women who brought French food to home chefs everywhere

Anne Willan’s La Varenne Cooking School—in its original location in Paris and its longtime home in Burgundy—trained thousands of chefs, food writers and home cooks. Along with Julia Child, Willan became known for demystifying classic French culinary technique for regular people who ...

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One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France

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Life stories and recipes from founder of the legendary La Varenne Cooking School and—along with Julia Child—one of the English-speaking women who brought French food to home chefs everywhere

Anne Willan’s La Varenne Cooking School—in its original location in Paris and its longtime home in Burgundy—trained thousands of chefs, food writers and home cooks. Along with Julia Child, Willan became known for demystifying classic French culinary technique for regular people who loved food.  Under her cheerful no-nonsense instruction, anyone could learn to truss a chicken, make a bernaise, loft a soufflé.  Willan’s more than thirty cookbooks, including The Art of French Provincial Cooking and the seventeen volume Look & Cook series influenced tens of thousands more who could not travel to France to study with her.

One Soufflé At A Time bubbles with warm, funny stories of the food establishment—from Child and her co–author Simone Beck, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Richard Olney, and more—and how they lived in a place they all loved more than anywhere else. It’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a typical and very determined Englishwoman’s storming the bastions of the insular, male French culinary establishment to create an institution.

Featuring fifty recipes—from Coquilles St. Jacques to Chocolate Snowball—and written in Willan’s open, sharp, fast voice, One Soufflé At A Time is a memoir from the last big personality of her culinary era to be heard from.

Winner of the 2014 IACP Cookbook Award for Literary Food Writing

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Christine Muhlke
…a delightful sketch of four decades spent in the upper stratosphere of the food world…There's a lifetime of stories to compress, which Willan's co-author, Amy Friedman, does graciously. Willan's noblesse and saltiness come through in equal measure. This is a strong woman who grabbed life by the babas…
Kirkus Reviews
British founder of the bilingual La Varenne cooking school in Paris, veteran cookbook author and world traveler Willan traces her experiences through piquant anecdotes, including favorite recipes that mark salient memories and friendships. From her Yorkshire roots to a Cambridge education, training in Paris to marriage, American citizenship, entrance into "worldliness," the creation of La Varenne, envisioned as an alternative to the famed Cordon Bleu, La Varenne's closure and her later career teaching at venues such as the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, Willan admits to a life often characterized by luck and privilege. With the assistance of Friedman, she narrates with ease, briefly recalling encounters with elite personages and celebrated chefs such as Julia Child. Without self-aggrandizing, such moments vivify a slice of the gastronomic world, particularly during the 1970s, when women were seldom permitted in professional kitchens, nouvelle cuisine was finding its footing, and the explosion of the Food Network had yet to occur. The handful of less-than-flattering scenes--such as those revealing quirks of students and colleagues--are treated with gentle humor, and the author mentions hardships with graceful aplomb. Willan segues between chronology and recipes in a straightforward manner, resulting in an episodic career memoir interwoven with momentous life occasions, from cross-Atlantic moves to weddings and deaths. Compelling chapters on La Varenne in Paris and its courses at Château du Feÿ in Burgundy reveal the pleasures and complications of working in the kitchen, though readers seeking more in-depth details will find these chapters too few. A charming, if not revelatory, portrait of a woman determined to bring French cuisine to a wider audience, with emphasis on traditional, accessible recipes that respect the intellectual side of cookery. Recommended for Francophiles and culinary enthusiasts.
From the Publisher
"[Willan] shares her adventures in life, love and cheese balls in the delectable memoir One Soufflé at a Time, which also comes peppered with her favorite recipes."—T, The New York Times Magazine

"Ms. Willan tells the story of her life—interespersing it generously with recipes, classic French and otherwise—in an easygoing, readable style, full of anecdote and insight."—Colman Andrews, Wall Street Journal

"Woven into the story of how she managed to build a culinary school in Paris, Willan shares anecdotes from her interactions with Julia Child...making one of the most legendary figures in cooking seem like an old friend. Somehow she does the same with food."—Saveur

"An episodic career memoir interwoven with momentous life occasions, from cross-Atlantic moves to weddings and deaths. Compelling chapters on La Varenne in Paris and its courses at Château du Feÿ in Burgundy reveal the pleasures and complications of working in the kitchen...A charming...portrait of a woman determined to bring French cuisine to a wider audience, with emphasis on traditional, accessible recipes that respect the intellectual side of cookery."—Kirkus Reviews

"Willan, who founded LaVarenne Cooking School in Paris, shares her life story in this charming memoir."—Library Journal

 "When Julia Child introduced me to her dear friend, Anne Willan, she said, 'You must get to know Anne, she is remarkable!' Julia was almost right: Anne is extraordinary!  For those of us who love Anne and have admired – and benefited – from her work (she trained some of my favorite chefs and editors), this memoir is filled with insights, lessons, inspiration and so many tales of adventure.  And for those of you who are just meeting Anne, you’re lucky – you have a treat in store."—Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table and co-owner of Beurre & Sel cookies

"Anne Willan and her LaVarenne way have quite simply shaped modern food writing like no one else."—Virginia Willis, author of Bon Appetit, Y'all

"Direct, forthright...It's fun to watch [Willan] calmly punch a hole through the glass ceiling of the culinary world."—The Oregonian

"Anne Willan’s kitchen memoir reads like a season of Downton Abbey—castles, high society, far-flung romance, and the riveting story of how a Yorkshire woman broke through the closed male ranks of the French culinary world to found La Varenne, one of the great cooking schools of our day." — Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312642174
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 9/17/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 983,983
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

ANNE WILLAN grew up in England, received a Master’s degree from Cambridge University, and taught cooking in London and Paris before founding La Varenne in 1975.  She was also an editor at Gourmet and food editor of the Washington Star.  She lives in Southern California.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One





If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

—Harry S. Truman

On a chilly November morning I rushed out of our apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Just a few months earlier, in the summer of 1975, my husband, Mark, and I, with our two small children, Simon and Emma, had moved to Paris. I’d already taken this twenty-minute walk dozens of times, a straight path east along the Rue Saint Dominique, on my way to my cookery school that was, after years of planning, nearly ready to open. This was the day Craig Claiborne, the renowned restaurant critic of The New York Times and the most important fixture on the American food scene, was coming to see the school. That he was coming at all was a great compliment, but a mention in The Times could make all the difference, since his words could make or break our reputation.

I hurried past top-class food stores—a poulterer and several bakeries. I had already picked out “my” café, the place I stopped every morning to drink a café crème and read the Herald Tribune; from the first day the server knew my order without asking. But that day I didn’t stop. I swept past commanding historic buildings and across the gray gravel then fronting Les Invalides, the vast complex of military-themed museums and Napoléon’s tomb. I spotted our sign painted in crisp black letters on a cream background: LA VARENNE ÉCOLE DE CUISINE and felt a shiver of pride at the sight of it and of our window boxes with their cheerful geraniums.

Keeper of the keys, I climbed the back stairs and turned the ancient, crabby lock, releasing the heavy sidewalk door, which surely dated from the 1930s. Our French business partner and landlord, Sofitel, had helped us find this old bistro beside one of their hotels in the heart of Paris. Finding the right place had not been easy. Restaurants in Paris were doing very well, and French law demanded that any premises in which there would be cooking had to have a restaurant license. But this 150-year-old building with its stone-vaulted cellar naturally insulated for a chambre froide, a walk-in cold room with meat hooks, was just right. By that day in November we had spent months remodeling—one classroom on the ground floor for the morning hands-on practical classes, with another upstairs to double as a practical kitchen and a space for afternoon demonstrations that would, like the cinema, welcome drop-ins. Now I hoped to lure some students.

Our chef, Michel Marolleau, arrived at nine on the dot. Marolleau had been recommended by Sofitel and was the image of what I’d imagined as the La Varenne chef with his good looks, neatly combed hair, and pencil-perfect moustache. He was young—just twenty-nine to my thirty-seven. Although he had not one word of English, he did have solid cooking experience. That morning as he changed into his starched chef’s whites in the cubbyhole behind the upstairs office, I busied myself with last-minute preparations. I noticed the loose telephone wires still about but consoled myself that at least the main demonstration bench and crucial overhead mirror lined with Mylar reflecting plastic were installed. I smiled up at that mirror, envisioning a showman chef who might flambé with too much enthusiasm and scorch a hole in the Mylar—and later did just that.

All that summer and into fall had been a flurry of activity, but I was fortunate to have the support not only of the family but also of so many lights of the food world. Simone Beck—better known as Simca and Julia Child’s co-author—had gone with me to the frenetic Salon des Arts Ménagers, where I purchased equipment for the school. Simca’s energy was astounding; in her toy-sized car, also called a Simca, she drove me around the Place de l’Étoile never looking left or right. Armed with her wisdom and keen eye, I decided on appliances that combined economy with toughness. We could not afford the robust German makes, let alone anything American, which was the wrong image anyway. My mission was to teach real French cooking, but so many of the French appliances were of poor quality, so we finally decided on the French-made Arthur Martin as a good compromise. At the school the utilitarian brown floor was shiny clean. The sight of the curtains I had made myself from the expensive chintz fabric printed with herbs, an opening gift from my mother, gave me a rush of pride. I’d wanted to add a touch of hominess to temper all that cold stainless steel of the bench and ovens.

I had spent many days preparing for this particular morning. At my request, Chef Marolleau had made his signature apple tart and chewy almond cookies called financiers because they are the color and shape of gold bars. I’d also instructed him to be prepared to serve lunch, though I couldn’t be certain Craig would stay. I fussed over every detail, lastly my clothes, the flared black wool skirt my mother had bought for me on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and my favorite red-patterned shirt. My mother had insisted I dress well for such an occasion—so much was at stake.

For nearly eighty years the Cordon Bleu had been the cooking school in France for professionals from other countries. But in the 1960s when I was a student at the school in Paris I’d been frustrated by the fact that while we learned a great deal, none of it was on paper. That was the way I had always been taught, especially at Cambridge University, where I had earned my degree in economics. At Cambridge one was always hearing: “If it’s interesting, write it down,” but at the Cordon Bleu nothing was, and there also was only one cantankerous old chef. Although he was good, he flatly refused to discuss anything. I always had questions—“Chef, why are you cooking this so fast?” or, “Chef, what exactly does it mean to sauté something?” or, “Chef, how do I know when something’s done?” Whenever anyone dared ask anything, the chef snarled, “Don’t bother me.”

So we learned by inference—we had to watch how the chef cooked. That’s what I did. And I took copious notes. Every night of my months there I went to my room and typed the recipes on three-by-five cards. When I began to prepare to open my own cooking school, some of these recipes became the inspiration of the curriculum. Behind all this was my belief that we must look at cooking the way the French look at it: Cooking has a structure, a particular way of doing things. For instance, roasting involves dry heat, moderately high but sometimes very high temperatures, so you know certain techniques are involved in the process. If you know that structure, you can roast anything. Everything has a structure—the basic sauces, the stocks, the crème pâtissière. And with technique, you build. Even a simple dish such as fillets of sole Provençale provided a good lesson in lifting the four skinny fillets from a whole fish, then sautéing them briskly, but not too fast, in butter, with a tablespoon of oil to discourage scorching. The tomatoes (fresh only) must be peeled and seeded, and the seasonal garlic of late spring is best.


Any whitefish fillets are good cooked this way and this is a last-minute dish, best served at once. Add a wedge of lemon to each plate.

Serves 4

4–8 fillets whitefish (1½ pounds/675 g total)

2 medium tomatoes

4–5 tablespoons/30–40 g flour

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons/60 g butter, plus more if needed

1 tablespoon/15 ml vegetable oil, plus more if needed

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Rinse and dry the fish fillets on paper towels and cut large fillets in half, lengthwise. Core the tomatoes and cut them in half crosswise. To remove the seeds, squeeze the halves in your fist so the seeds pop out; then coarsely chop the tomato flesh.

Spread the flour on a sheet of paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Press each side of a fish fillet on the flour; lift and pat it with your hands to form an even coating. Coat the remaining fillets. Heat half the butter with the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. When the butter stops sputtering, add half the fish fillets, skin side upward. Sauté briskly until browned, 2 to 3 minutes, turn, and brown the other side. Transfer the fillets to two warm serving plates and keep warm. Add more butter and oil to the pan if needed, and sauté the remaining fillets to fill two more plates.

Wipe out the pan. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and sauté the shallots until translucent, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 more minute. Stir in the tomato and cook briefly, stirring, until very warm, about another minute. Stir in the parsley, take from the heat, and spoon over the fish fillets. Serve at once.

With La Varenne, I wanted to bring the best cooking in the world—French cooking—to a wider audience. That had always meant I had to open the school in Paris, where I could find world-class chefs and where students would have an opportunity to dine and eventually work in the finest restaurants. It was my mission to make it easy for the students to learn. The school would be bilingual, which at that time the Cordon Bleu in Paris most emphatically was not. Despite the fact that I understood the chefs rarely followed written recipes, students would receive paper copies. Eventually, to deal with grumbling from students discovering an incongruity between the written recipe and what the chef was actually doing, we added a caveat: “Since each chef may prepare his own version of this recipe, please consider the above as a starting point for your own notes.”

I wanted to make everyone feel at home. Because I was born English, I knew what it felt like to be a stranger in France. I wanted our school to allow for national tastes and to incorporate ingredients from afar. For years I lugged American flour from the United States to Paris in my red valise so that anyone returning to the United States could succeed at making butter puff pastry the French way at home. I insisted on putting hand to dough—la main à la pâte, as the French would say. I understood that good food is food without pretension, food that delights by surprise, food that appeals to every sense. That was the understanding I hoped to instill in our students. Details mattered. My Grand Diplôme from the Paris Cordon Bleu, dated March 27, 1964, misspelled my name—Anne Willian—although we had fewer than twenty students in our class and I had been there for eighteen months. Not only did that feel insulting, but it was the kind of indifference to students I was determined not to allow at La Varenne.

For two years before we opened, our family had lived in Luxembourg, where my husband worked at the European Investment Bank. It was in Luxembourg that the idea for the school began to take real shape. From a gastronomic viewpoint, the two years in Luxembourg were a dead end— “mountain trout” came from the hatchery; game seemed to have fled over the border into the French and Belgian Ardennes. Luckily, France was not far away and Mark, my éminence grise in so many things, kept reassuring me we would move back to Paris and I would open a school.

But other than Mark and my friends Julia Child and Simca Beck, few people understood my idea. Whenever Mark and I talked about the idea with English friends, they were nonplussed. How could anybody, particularly a foreigner, open a cookery school in Paris? They wanted to know. They thought we were mad even to imagine the idea. American friends outside the food world found the idea entrepreneurial, an inverted form of the American dream. But they asked things like, “Do you speak French?” or, “Will the Paris chefs help you?” They actually had no idea.

Indeed, as I was quickly coming to understand, neither did I. The previous months had been an orgy of preparation. We had been busy moving the family and finding a nanny and schools for the children, who were three and five, and also working hard to raise sufficient funds for the school. Our early investors included many in the food world who had been so welcoming—Julia and Paul Child, James Beard, Simca Beck, as well as our good friend Nick Brown. But I quickly discovered it is a quantum leap from cooking professionally and writing about food—both of which I had been doing for more than a decade—to organizing and running a school. Julia was great from the start, offering not just financial help but also ideas and friends and friends of friends—people who made yearly pilgrimages to the three-star restaurants; people who played tennis with the Troisgros brothers, famed restaurateurs; people who fermented their own crème frâiche for Lutèce; cookbook authors and editors who led to yet more friends.

Julia and Simca had arranged for me to teach six weeks of classes at the fabled Gritti Palace hotel in Venice in the early summer of 1975. There I would be introduced to a wider audience. Julia also introduced us to her lawyer, William Peter Kosmas, whom we liked immediately. It was Bill who worked out a partnership contract with Sofitel and he who had found us a woman to help with promotion. “Yanou Collart,” he told us, “represents Paul Bocuse.” Bocuse, whose restaurant l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges near Lyon was one of a small number in France to receive the Guide Michelin three-star rating, was one of the most prominent chefs in the world. So although we had no experience with publicists, naturally we contacted Yanou.

Yanou was big and matronly. Though I couldn’t be sure, she was apparently a lesbian who was open about her sexuality at a time when that was rare. And her advice was priceless. “What you have to do,” she told me, “is hold classes and invite anybody and everybody. Then we’ll get journalists to come and write about the classes.…” I didn’t think for one moment of ignoring her advice. I knew good press would be vital. Still, in late September, six weeks before opening, we had just one registered student. I was apprehensive.

Before Luxembourg, we had lived in Washington, D.C., where I worked as food editor at The Washington Star, and I had learned there that fake photo setups look artificial. So instead of making a pretense, I rounded up just a few friends to provide animation for our demonstration. I carefully prepared the menu—Marolleau seemed willing to turn his hand to anything. On our dry run one week earlier for a freelance journalist, everything had gone beautifully. I felt confident all would go well that day, too. Besides, I hoped Craig wouldn’t have bothered to agree to come unless he had positive feelings about the school.

*   *   *

Small, slightly plump, and cherubic-faced, Craig arrived promptly on time, but when he walked in he tripped slightly over those telephone wires. Thankfully, he didn’t take a spill. He had less than an hour, he explained as we hurried up the stairs for a look around. He was on a tight schedule. For a moment I was disappointed, but I understood that a visit to an infant cooking school could not be a high priority for the most famous cookery journalist in America. Looking back, I understand still better: That very week he and his longtime friend Chef Pierre Franey embarked on an adventure at the prominent Paris restaurant Chez Denis, a meal that became an unfortunate cause célèbre, a $4,000 tab on a thirty-one-course meal. Readers lambasted him for the extravagance in a time when so many in the world were dying of hunger.

Still, I was honored to have him at La Varenne, and as I showed him around I handed him copies of many of the nearly one thousand recipes I’d spent the last several years writing, and more information about the school Yanou insisted I give him. I led him in to observe Marolleau’s demonstration, which I translated, opening by articulating my idea behind La Varenne. “We intend to instruct in every facet of French cooking—sauces, roasts, fish cookery, pastry and dessert making, soups, hors d’oeuvre…”

The rest of that hour is a blur.

By the time Craig left it was scarcely lunchtime, yet I felt as if a whole day had passed. Exhausted, Marolleau and I sat down and ate his gigot d’agneau de sept heures and nibbled on the financiers. I’d deliberately chosen the slowly braised lamb to be reheatable. Thank heaven no French meal is complete without a glass, or two, of wine.


This recipe was once intended for tough mutton, but today’s tender meat takes only 4 to 5 hours to cook. A few small boiled potatoes are the only accompaniment needed.

Serves 6 to 8

A leg of mature lamb (about 6 pounds/2.7 kg)

2 cloves garlic, cut in slivers

A large bouquet garni of parsley stems, 3 bay leaves, and several stems of thyme

Salt and pepper

4 quarts/4 liters water, plus more if needed

3 carrots

3 small turnips

3 medium leeks

2 small celery roots

3 medium onions

10–12 cloves garlic, chopped

Cheesecloth; string; large casserole or heavy roasting pan

Heat the oven to 275°F/140°C and set a shelf low down. Trim the lamb of excess fat and stud the meat with the slivers of garlic, poking small holes with the point of a knife. Wrap the meat in cheesecloth and tie it tightly with string (it will shrink during cooking). Put it in the casserole with the bouquet garni, a pinch of salt, and enough water to cover it by three-quarters. Bring the water slowly to a boil on top of the stove and skim it well.

Cover the casserole, transfer it to the oven, and cook for 2 hours. The water should scarcely simmer, so if necessary turn down the heat. Turn over the meat after 2 hours and continue cooking another hour. Meanwhile, trim, peel, and cut the carrots, turnips, leeks, celery roots, and onions into 3/8-inch/1-cm slices. Mix them with the chopped garlic, salt, and pepper.

After 3 hours, lift out the meat, add the vegetables in the casserole, and replace the meat on top. If necessary, add more water so that the meat is half-covered. Replace the lid and continue cooking until the meat is very tender indeed and would fall off the bone if not wrapped, 1 to 1½ more hours.

Remove the meat to a warm place and cover it loosely with foil. If the vegetables are not very tender, continue simmering them, uncovered, on top of the stove until they almost collapse into a fragrant mélange. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a deep platter, discarding the bouquet garni. Cover and keep warm. Increase the heat so the cooking liquid boils and reduces.

Discard the cheesecloth and strings from the lamb, lift it carefully onto the vegetables, cover, and keep the platter warm. Continue reducing the cooking liquid to about 3 cups/750 ml of concentrated broth to serve as gravy—this may take up to 20 minutes. Taste it and adjust the seasoning. Serve the vegetables and meat in shallow bowls—the meat will fall apart without being carved. Spoon over a little of the broth, passing the rest separately in a bowl.

On November 5, 1975, just five days before our official opening, Craig’s glowing piece about La Varenne appeared in The New York Times. Although he mentioned those trailing wires, he also remarked on the “far from unpleasant mingling of odors—roast meat with the good smell of game, celery, apples and fresh paint.” He wrote about the brightly lighted room, the spotless modern range, and our young chef applying himself to “multiple good things including … a caramelized tarte Tatin.” He quoted my mission, and at the end came a paragraph about our opening on Monday, November 10. We were off.

Our earliest days of press coverage assured me I was on to something. Even France’s Le Figaro described what we were doing as an alliance “of American bonhomie and the French art of the table.” I remained confident that we were offering something different from, and better than, the Cordon Bleu of those days. It is true that a soufflé that would rise in the Paris Cordon Bleu basement kitchen in their ovens with no thermostat would rise anywhere. But I wanted something much better, and I believed we had set the stage.

We had problems early on—primarily staff, or rather the lack of it. I was on the front line, not only translating demonstrations and classes but also welcoming walk-in visitors and cleaning up after class. Marolleau reported full-time, as was required by French law, but also under French labor law, chefs do not wash up. We paid him handsomely, though most of the time he was lolling around, because into December we had only a trickle of students. He spent mornings in the basement organizing his mise en place for the afternoon class in case a few students did show up. Every day at 2:30 I would walk downstairs to the front door and peek outside to see if anyone happened to be waiting on the sidewalk for the drop-in class. Many days there was no one there.

Just the week before Christmas our first full paid student came, Abby Mandel from Chicago. Several months earlier at a cooking demonstration for a benefit in Illinois that Julia gave, she had talked up the school. So Abby, who had persuaded Julia to do the demonstration, decided to come. Abby eventually brought the first sustainable farmer’s market to Chicago and was one of the first of many La Varenne students to go on to stellar careers in food. But in those early days besides Abby we had only the dentist’s wife, everybody and anybody’s secretary or cousin, whomever we could persuade to come.

In mid-December Yanou arranged for a journalist, Susan Heller Anderson, to visit. Susan came to one class, then to a second, and when she asked if she could come a third time I thought, Well, honestly…, because those classes were costing us money. But I held my tongue. This time she asked if she could bring along a photographer. Looking back, I suppose I should have known that was a sign things were going places, but I was too busy to notice.

On the day Susan came with the photographer, he happened to catch a freak photo. Michel was making chaud-froid de poulet, and I was animatedly translating, pointing at the dish. The photographer happened to catch a picture of us at the moment that Marolleau, in his chef’s hat, was making precisely the same gesture as I was. At the end of the day, Susan said, “I think I’ve sold a story about the school to Time magazine.”

That night I told Mark, and we agreed it would likely be one of those two-sentence paragraphs. We thought nothing more about it as we closed up the school for the holidays. Christmas is always an important gathering time for our family, and there was no question that we would close. We celebrated during the lull until the New Year. Then, at the start of 1976, the new Time came in the mail, and when we opened it we were speechless. There was an enthusiastic story with a two-column-wide photograph occupying half a page.

What sets La Varenne apart from any other school of la cuisine classique in France is that it is run—efficiently—by an Englishwoman, Anne Willan—and it is the first full-scale school to offer lessons in English as well as French. Without mincing any mots, the well-financed academy has set out to challenge the haughty Cordon Bleu, the 80-year-old citadel of French culinary tradition that has become a synonym for distinguished cookery. [“Modern Living: A Franglais Challenge to Cordon Bleu,” Time, January 5, 1976.]

Susan described me as an unflappable practical cook with the Grand Diplôme from the Paris Cordon Bleu and other credentials—like the twenty-volume Grand Diplôme Cooking Course I had edited back in the early seventies in America. And, she wrote, “she has a well-traveled palate.” I loved that description. In the second week of January when we reopened, the phone lines began to ring off the hook. From having no students, by the third week of January we had one full class of ten and another half-filled. Suddenly I was translating two practical classes and five demonstrations each week and Marolleau was on his feet all day. I understood we had created a living, breathing animal.

*   *   *

So much of cooking is indefinable, a question of instinct. In France, unlike America and England in those days, children were brought up thinking about what they eat. From a very early age they were aware of the importance of how something should taste. Questions followed: “Does this have enough salt?” “Wouldn’t this be nice with tarragon?” “This sauce has just the right balance of this and that…” From infancy, children in France hear people talking this way. I wanted our students to pick up the French custom of appraising what they ate, just the way I had learned from a family I lived with while I was at the Paris Cordon Bleu in the early 1960s.

The Charpentiers, with their seven children, followed a program of discipline that I’m certain went back generations. Each day Monsieur, a wealthy industrialist, came home for a two-hour lunch at which all the children were expected to behave impeccably. The food was plain—dried salami sausage, celery root rémoulade, radishes with butter, followed by roast meat and a single vegetable, fish on Fridays, then cheese and fruit. I was impressed by the way the whole family talked about food. The youngest child was born while I was living there, the oldest was twelve, and they grew up with an “I always cross Paris to get the best chickens on Sunday” attitude. Their chickens came from a special poulterer, the finest in Paris. The Charpentiers were upper bourgeoisie, but even in ordinary restaurants in France I saw parents and their children relishing food, tasting, say, steak frites, saying things like, “Oh, these frites are not as good as last week’s.”

Back then every self-respecting Frenchwoman had her special chocolate cake, though sometimes it did seem the only dish well-to-do Frenchwomen could cook. Most French families seemed to have hidden a plump little old lady in the kitchen, a fact that had prompted Julia to comment of the elegant mesdames out front in the salon, “Frenchwomen can’t cook!” But Marielle Charpentier was different. The Charpentier house was a paradise of good wine and food, and dessert was a festival of tastes—fritters with honey or snow eggs of meringue floating in vanilla custard and topped with crisp caramel. Marielle had a small repertoire, but each dish was perfection.

Her chocolate snowball has toured the world with me, greeted everywhere with acclaim. How can you miss with more or less equal weights of chocolate, butter, sugar, and eggs in a cloud of whipped cream?


For me, the darker the chocolate, the better this dessert will be.

Serves 8

4 eggs

8 ounces/225 g dark sweet chocolate, chopped

¾ cup/175 ml espresso coffee

1 cup/225 g unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 cup/200 g sugar

For the Chantilly cream

1 cup/250 ml heavy cream, chilled

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon/15 ml cognac or ½ teaspoon vanilla

Fresh mint sprigs or candied violets

1-quart/1-liter charlotte mold or deep metal bowl; pastry bag and small star tip; heavy-duty aluminum foil

Line the mold with a large sheet of aluminum foil, pressing it down into the base and up the sides as smoothly as possible without poking a hole. Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Whisk the eggs in a bowl until mixed.

In a medium saucepan, melt the chocolate over low heat with the coffee, stirring until melted. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it is thick but still falls easily from the spoon, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the butter and sugar, and keep stirring over the heat until both are melted. Bring the mixture almost to a boil and take from the heat. Stir in the eggs a little at a time: the retained heat will cook the eggs and thicken the mixture slightly.

Work the mixture through a strainer into the lined mold. Set the mold on a baking sheet and bake in the oven until a thick crust forms on top, 45 to 55 minutes. The mixture will rise slightly, then fall again as it cools. Cover and chill in the refrigerator at least 24 hours. The chocolate snowball can be kept up to a week and the flavor will mellow.

To finish: Not more than 2 hours before serving, run a knife around the mold, turn the snowball onto a serving plate, and peel off the foil. (The mixture tends to stick and look messy; do not worry.) For the Chantilly cream, whisk the chilled cream in a cold bowl until it holds soft peaks. Add the sugar and cognac or vanilla, and continue whisking until stiff peaks form, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Scoop the cream into the pastry bag with the star tip, and pipe small rosettes all over the chocolate mixture to cover it completely. Top the center of the mold with a single large rosette. Decorate with mint sprigs or candied violets, and chill until serving. Serve the snowball by cutting in wedges like a cake.

I hadn’t found such appreciation of food in England, and in America there was even less of a habit of analyzing the food on the plate. It’s different now, but in the sixties and seventies that approach didn’t exist. For the cook there are two parts to tasting. One is the intellectual side: what the natural combinations are—like nutmeg with milk and cream, or lemon with fish. Just the knowledge of that entering your consciousness forever is part of the underlying grasp of cooking. And there’s the actual physical side, where you should taste everything at every stage—testing the boiling water for salt even before you drop in the greens.

The most difficult skill to teach is how to taste. A cook must learn not only how to judge flavor but also to test it all the time, and even those who enjoy cooking and are good at it find that difficult. After tasting the water you need to taste the cooked spinach, then taste again when you reheat it with a bit of butter. As for those complex sauces? You taste the stock, then the sauce itself half a dozen times as it simmers and deepens over the hours. Tasting is part of a chef’s instinct, the part that’s difficult to ingrain in students and so hard to explain.

With thirty students and three full classes, straightaway I could tell who had the instinct. I could tell whether or not a student felt at ease in the kitchen, and it wasn’t necessarily a matter of experience. Those who felt at home did not need to be told to do things like pick up dirty pots and take them to wash up; without being taught they trimmed their onions just right before starting to slice or dice them. I began to understand it was like a sport—some people pick up that physical side quickly and some never do; some people have a good palate, and some do not.

Our son, Simon, was only five when La Varenne opened, but he already had a good food memory and could recognize the taste of his scoop of nameless white sorbet—apple, pear, lemon, or grapefruit. Later, in his teens, he would recognize flavors within a complex sauce that had eight different ingredients—“ah, that’s cumin,” he’d say, “not coriander.” And Marielle Charpentier had that kind of palate, able to compete with the sommelier at La Tour d’Argent with its world-renowned cellar. At La Varenne, I began to see that in a class of ten students eight would be in the middle; I knew half of those were likely to emerge as pretty good chefs. There was always, sadly, the one student who was prone to disaster—burning things or making sauces that tasted of raw flour. And the tenth, with luck, would be a real natural who had what it takes in the head and in the hands.

In the first few years of La Varenne’s existence, I was lucky enough to find just the right chefs, while thousands of cooking enthusiasts walked through our doors—restaurateurs, caterers, chefs, cooking teachers, food writers, and some complete amateurs. Just a small handful—perhaps a dozen a year—became stagiaires, interns who followed a program that eventually emerged as a nine-month work program covering over one thousand recipes.

But in those first months I wasn’t thinking of what our future would be. I was rushing about handling what I had created out of my imagination and learning again that great cooking is so much more than recipes. Memorable cooking is like great music, with balance and sureness of touch that goes straight to the heart. At École de Cuisine La Varenne we gathered brilliant teachers and eager students, who roamed through recipes on the page and in the kitchen, and I remained determined that everyone who came to us should feel touched by the magic of success. I wanted people to leave saying what one student early on remarked: “When I go home I will never look at food the same way again.”


Copyright © 2013 by Anne Willan Inc.

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  • Posted January 28, 2014

    I've always been interested in international cuisines, and Frenc

    I've always been interested in international cuisines, and French cuisine fascinates me. I was definitely looking forward to a great book on life and food in France. The first "issue" came up just 4 pages into the book. The author is talking about technique and how it's important to do things the way the French do them if you're cooking French cuisine. In talking about different techniques used in "Fillets of Sole Provençale", she states that tomatoes must be peeled and seeded. However, the actual recipe only tells you to core, seed and chop the tomatoes. If you're an experienced cook, this won't be an issue, but for many people, they may not have had the experience to just know what to do. If technique is so important, include it in the actual recipe!

    The recipes in this book are great. It's as much or more memoir than cookbook, but there are still some great, classic recipes here that are well worth your time. The memoir portion—well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. The author was very big on her privileged childhood, and lots of name-dropping as time went on. The writing came across as though the author feels very superior to whoever might be reading this book. That was a real down side for me. It all depends on what you're looking for in a book.

    I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Press through the Lisa Ekus Group for my honest opinion. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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