Food writer and cookery school pioneer Anne Willan on markets, the place of cookbooks in the digital age and her long friendship with Julia Child
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili
Anne Willan has had, by any measure, an extraordinary career. In 1975, she founded L’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, the first classical French cookery school to offer lessons in English. She has published more than 30 books, including the landmark tome French Regional Cooking, and is well known for her lively yet informative writing style. She was married to Mark Cherniavsky for 51 years and during that time they travelled extensively, collecting rare and historical cookbooks, most of which now form a special collection within the Getty Museum in California. After a swift Borough Market tour, during which we sampled cheese and slurped back oysters, two of Anne’s favourite things, she told us all about her life-long love of food, writing as a compulsion, and ‘La Varenne way’.
What are your earliest memories of food?
I grew up in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. We were half a mile from the nearest farmhouse, so it was really in the heart of the countryside. Very remote. Even during world war two, we managed to eat well. My nanny came to us when I was six months old and said: “That child eats too much!” The only thing that ever upset me was when I wasn’t allowed to eat as much as I wanted. Everybody had gruel in those days and I ate twice as much as I was supposed to. As long as I had that, I was just fine. I have always loved food.
You studied economics at Cambridge. How did you go from that to teaching and writing about food?
I never even considered being an economist. In those days there were no women in economics: there were two of us studying the full three-year degree course among 100 men. There were absolutely no career openings. In those days, this was 1959, you were expected to get married and bring up a family and in the meantime, do something else for a while. I said to my parents: “I like cooking, can I go to the Cordon Bleu?” And they said: “Really?” In those days, if you were interested in cooking, you had to go to France, so I went to Switzerland for three months to stay with a family and learn French, then went to La Cordon Bleu Paris. I kept myself by giving classes, cooking for dinner parties. I put an advertisement in the Herald Tribune about it and I had five replies. So that was the beginning.
One of the replies was from Chateau de Versailles, on embossed letterhead in a kind of scrawled handwriting, from what turned out to be a very famous woman, Florence Van der Kemp. She was married to Gerald Van der Kemp, who is credited with rescuing the Mona Lisa from the Nazis. He had become the head curator, dedicated to the restoration of Versailles. Florence did a great deal of official entertaining—we even entertained the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—and she had pots of money, which she spent on clothes, meeting people and on Versailles. Florence told me what she wanted for the dinner parties. I was down in the basement in the kitchen with the servants. Florence wanted me to teach French cooking to Bernadina, the cook, who was Spanish. Bernadina was lovely: she was a little old woman and she knew just how to organise a working kitchen.
You went on to set up the renowned cookery school Ecole de Cusine La Varenne—the first English-speaking French cookery school and rival to Le Cordon Bleu. How was it received?
At first we didn’t have French students; they were all foreign—but we were the only place you could come as an English-speaking foreigner and learn French cookery at the source. I was very lucky. We had a big hotel chain as a partner, but they were partners only in the sense that they supplied us with space—we were liable for the premises and we paid rent. They found us a chef, who did not last long, and we had a publicist who we could afford to pay for three weeks. She was called Yanou Collart and she knew everyone. She brought round a freelance journalist called Susan Heller Anderson. Helen brought a photographer to one of the classes and he got a freak photograph—chef Michel was making chaud-froid de poulet and I was translating, and he got a photograph of us doing precisely the same gesture. She sold the story to Time magazine. It was the dead season between Christmas and New Year, and the magazine had nothing much to say, so they ran the photograph in two columns, alongside an enthusiastic article—and the rest is history.
La Varenne alumni often talk about doing things ‘La Varenne way’—how would you define it?
Everything was a practical lesson. “Why did the cake fall?” I think it has too much carrot, or it wasn’t cooked long enough. “Well, let’s do it again and do it for five minutes longer.” And we put things into context. People learnt a lot more than just cooking recipes. I talked about cookbooks, I talked about writing recipes. I began my first serious cookbook, French Regional Cooking, while I was there and we tested all the recipes at the school. Right from the beginning, we ran a training programme: you worked for nothing, but you learnt a lot. It proved enormously popular. The majority of our most successful and famous students started as trainees. They worked very hard and they learnt the business from the ground up.
Julia Child was a big advocate of the school. How did your relationship develop?
Indeed she was. The first time that Julia came in, I remember exactly what we had: cheese soufflé, leg of lamb, gratin dauphinoise, and green beans. And I made an immensely elaborate dessert: 10 different layers—raspberry, buttercream and a cracked caramel top, with caramel round the side. She was an enormous support and I still have some letters she exchanged with my husband Mark, about running the school, what it should be like, what we should look for. She, like me, believed that the most interesting, finest food was—and probably still is—in France. And if you can teach that to people who weren’t brought up with it, you’re doing something wonderful. That’s what she did all her life.
Do you think British food now rivals French cuisine—or at least, more so now than it did 50 years ago?
The scene has changed enormously here. There’s a much greater appreciation and understanding of global cooking. It’s not like 1960. People have more money—food follows money—and people travel much more. I do think there’s a greater appreciation of a much wider variety of ingredients and I think there’s a growing appreciation of good ingredients; of the importance of good ingredients.
Do markets have a role to play in that evolution?
I’m not saying this just because we’re in Borough Market, but we should take children to food markets regularly. You get a totally different viewpoint if you’ve been round a good market.
I was living in Santa Monica when what might’ve been the first open market—producers coming in, setting up stalls and selling it that morning—began. There were at least 20 or 30 in the Los Angeles area by the time we left. The Santa Monica one was extremely well set up and they had most things. Cheese is not something that is normally made in California but there was one cheese stand, there were lots of good fruit and veg stands. It was organic-only on Wednesdays and all the chefs went. They would go there early in the day and get the best stuff. It really was thriving. It’s more difficult in the States in winter, it’s much more seasonal: as you go across the middle and particularly on the east coast nothing grows for three months of the year. It’s not like France, where the markets date back to the Romans. Something grows or swims for most of the year, anywhere in France.
Do you think that people use cookbooks differently today, in this digital age, compared to when you first started writing?
I’m very old fashioned, but I don’t think so. I don’t think that people are cooking in a kitchen off the internet, because it just isn’t like flicking through a book or turning over the page—it’s not satisfactory at all. That said, taking a lesson or watching a video on how to slice an onion is useful: a cookbook really is very clumsy for doing that. It’s harder to follow a written recipe to learn technique; you need to see somebody do it. That’s what I do with Lucy and Leo, my two grandchildren: I stand with my hands over theirs and show them the movements. They come and learn to cook, scatter flour all over the floor. But actually, doing a recipe, where you want an ingredients list and you need to know what temperature the oven needs to be, what size pan you need, you really benefit from having it on the page. To me, it’s not the same thing looking at it on a machine—and certainly not a little phone window.
Also, if you take something like coq au vin, you look it up on the internet and there are hundreds of recipes. Who are you going to trust? Now, I guess it’s because I’m used to using books, but you can see instantly when you open a cookbook whether or not the writer knows what they are doing. Though you look at a book such as Julia Child’s and it is awfully difficult to follow. What on earth persuaded her to do that complicated layout? They eventually changed it. I knew her very well and she was a very close friend, so it’s okay for me to say it. Though I never said it to her.
You have spent much of your life building an extensive collection of rare cookbooks. When and how did that begin?
While I was going to the Cordon Bleu, I met a nice English guy called Mark Cherniavsky and we both enjoyed food. The first time he took me out, he took me to a one-star restaurant, so that started off the right way. Mark had been to Oxford and had the same sort of education as me—but a totally different background. His father was born in Ukraine and was a child prodigy who’d travelled round the world, and his mother was Canadian. Mark also had a very peripatetic existence. We started out by travelling to places—Marseilles, Touraine, Algeria, when the war had just finished and everything was deserted. We drove into Morocco and down to the Atlas Mountains. That was the beginning of dozens of trips.
The first thing that Mark always did when he got into a city was go and see the book dealer. When we got engaged, he said: “If you’re going to write about cooking, you’ve got to have cookbooks.” And so he started collecting cookbooks. At the time I had a job answering the letters at Gourmet Magazine and used books to help me, because it was always: “I want a recipe for rye bread”, or, “what’s the way to make flapjacks?” Mark came into Gourmet Magazine one Saturday and said: “Now, which are the books you use most? Why?” And he started collecting all of them together. That was the foundation of the collection, and we went on from there. He collected books for the 51 years that we were married. The Getty Museum in California has most of them now. It’s the second-best collection on the west coast. More than 180 of them are more than 200 years old.
You’ve been writing cookbooks almost continually for more than 50 years. What inspires you?
The history of cooking. As soon as you get dug into one subject, you think, where did that ingredient or that recipe come from? And then you start getting into earlier books. Macaroons are a very good example: they go right back, possibly to the Romans but certainly to medieval times. They won’t be called a macaroon, but an almond bun or an almond mix. You can see how the recipe evolved.
I’m always writing something—I’ve got two ideas going at the moment. I have been writing a book about the history of women food writers. Julia is one of them. I was taught at school and university that if you are really interested in something, you need to write it down. Because once you start writing something down, you start giving it structure. It’s instinctive.