One Soufflé at a Time
A Memoir of Food and France
By Anne Willan, Amy Friedman
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Anne Willan Inc.
All rights reserved.
UPSTAIRS IN PARIS
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.
* * *
FILLETS OF SOLE PROVENÇALE
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.
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. (Continues...)
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