Thinking about my career, Nathalie Dupree took me out of my mama’s kitchen. She exposed me to things I had never heard of or knew about. I knew Mama made “patty shells” with creamed chicken, but I didn’t know they were puff pastry, and I sure didn’t know what that was or how to make it. Nathalie taught me to cook.
Nathalie shipped me off to France to apprentice with Anne. I learned a lot more about food and cooking when I went to France. Going to France allowed me to see, taste, and be immersed in a whole new culture, a whole new cuisine. The effects of living and working in France, both personally and professionally are immeasurable.
But, the one key thing, the lynchpin, the glue that holds my whole raison d’etre together? Anne Willan taught me how to write a recipe.
Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne
The LaVarenne Way of recipe writing has evolved with Anne’s experience of over 35 years as a teacher, cookbook author, and food writer. She is known on both sides of the Atlantic as a leading authority on the cuisine of France and its culinary history. As the director of Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, the cooking school that she founded 1975 with the encouragement and support of the grand doyenne herself, Julia Child, Willan has shaped and influenced countless professional and amateur cooks all over the world.
Anne’s body of work is astonishing. Her books have been published in two dozen countries and translated into 18 languages. Her awards include James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame, Bon Appétit Cooking Teacher of the Year, Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a Lifetime Achievement Award from International Association of Culinary Professionals, and she was inducted into the French Legion of Honor for her promotion of the Gastronomy of France.
Practically every major food magazine in the US has LaVarenne alumni on staff that knows the LaVarenne Way. The alumni are called tongue in cheek, the LaVarenne Mafia. No secret society, the list reads like a who’s who of the culinary world. It includes among others: 2009 IACP award cookbook nominee and co-author of Golden Door Cooks at Home, Marah Stets; Food52 and NYT writer and editor Amanda Hesser; cookbook author Cynthia Nims; Barbecue Bible chef Stephen Raichlen; James Beard award-winning chef Ana Sortun; IACP award-winning cookbook author Molly Stevens; and Tina Ujlaki, Executive Food Editor, Food & Wine magazine.
Pause for a moment and think how many home cooks are reached by these alumni, how many recipes are written in LaVarenne style. James Beard award-winning cookbook author Molly Stevens says, “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Anne Willan and La Varenne. In addition to the invaluable culinary training I garnered in France, working directly with Anne over the years opened countless doors and opened my eyes to the possibility of making a career by teaching and writing. In addition, Anne is one of the hardest working individuals I know, and her drive for perfection has long been an inspiration.”
Originally based in Paris, LaVarenne later moved to the 17th-century Château du Fey. I arrived at La Varenne in 1995, initially as an editorial stagière or apprentice. Working in exchange for room and board I was able to polish my cooking, writing, and editorial skills testing recipes for Cook It Right, a comprehensive work that documents various states of cooking. It was hard work, long hours, and not a whole lot of freedom – after all I was living with my boss. New apprentices are low on the totem pole and chores exceed the confines of the kitchen.
It was similar to interning at a country inn and duties include pre-dawn baguette runs, toting luggage up winding flights of ancient stairs, and picking cherries for the breakfast jam. Cherry picking always seemed to need to happen just before dinner service, something I never could quite grasp. Of course, room was in the château and board included produce delivered each morning from the potager, still damp with the morning dew. It was a precious opportunity to learn how to actually cook it right from Anne herself.
I was meant to be there for three months and instead I was there on and off for three life-changing years. I was starving, not just for the food, but for knowledge, for reason, for how and why. Anne gave me that. Wait, no, she didn’t give me that, she made me work for that.
It wasn’t all rosy, believe me. One of the most powerful moments in my entire life was a result of a long day at work. It was the end of a long work day of a long work week. I don’t remember even what it was, but we bumped heads a bit over something. I sulked off to my room and flung open the windows, cursing to myself, “What on earth?! Why I am doing this!” (Okay, I am taming the language for both Anne and my Mama, but you get the point.)
I look out the window and in the brightness of the late summer afternoon stood a massive field of sunflowers covering the hillside. The force of the view was so intense it literally physically pushed me back, it was as if someone smacked me on the chest and forced me down to sit on the bench. Now, I had seen those flowers before, but I had never seen them like that. That was the answer to my question.
One of my favorite tales from my time there is that while preparing for the Bastille Day picnic, I cut off the tip of my left thumb while preparing potato salad. I quickly wrapped my hand in a towel and raised it above my head. I grabbed the severed bit from the cutting board in my right hand, walked into Anne Willan’s office, and told her I had cut myself. She asked to see it. I refused. She repeated herself. I refused. See, I knew it was a pretty good cut. I didn’t want to spurt all over her office. Her eyebrows arched. (Anne is not used to being told “no”.) She insisted.
Finally, opening my right palm, I said, “Well, here it is.” The grand dame Anne blanched and replied, “Oh dear, I think we need a Cognac.”
Quickly, the lost bit was placed on ice and she sent me down the hill to Joigny for repairs.
She, then of course, went back to work.
I developed a tremendous respect for her work ethic and knowledge about food and cooking. Her way, the LaVarenne way is based on a regimen of rigorous recipe testing and editing. My first attempts at recipe writing were returned bleeding in the red ink of her razor sharp pen. I learned the importance of proofreading and attention to detail and I am not alone. Tamie Cook, Culinary Director for Alton Brown and former LaVarenne stagière says, “My experience with Anne Willan at La Varenne was invaluable. Never have I worked so hard and been so rewarded. Anne is driven to perfection like few people I have ever met and her willingness to open the doors of her operation to someone like myself with very little culinary experience at the time is a testament to her passion for teaching and life-long learning.” This premise is the foundation of Willan’s work and emanates from her writer’s desk to the stovetop. Anne says, “Learn the scales before you play the music. Cooking is about creativity, but it’s important to acquire discipline first.”
Practicing the essentials and learning the basis are the fundamental building blocks of the LaVarenne Way. I once asked Anne what part of her illustrious career she is most proud of. Beaming with pride she answered, “Creating LaVarenne where so many people have been through and learned then going out and doing their own things, taking things further and creating their own careers.”
Thank you, Anne.