fb-pixel Skip to main content
Q & A

Anne Willan reflects on her years of French cooking

Anne Willan. C. Siri Berting

Anne Willan has deep ties to some of Boston’s — and America’s — most prominent chefs. As the founder of the bilingual Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, which the British-American author and cook opened in Paris in 1975, Willan has trained restaurateur Ana Sortun of Oleana, Sofra, and the upcoming Sarma, Chinese expert and author Nina Simonds, and TV host Steve Raichlen, a former Boston resident. Willan, who lives in Southern California with her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, is also the author of more than 30 books. Last month, she published an account of her life, “One Souffle at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France,” which her daughter had suggested penning. “She said, ‘Mom, you’re always telling these stories. You ought to write them down,’ ” says Willan, 75, in a plummy British accent. “So my wonderful coauthor Amy Friedman would come around once a week and we would just talk, which is wonderful because it means one doesn’t have to do any work.”

Q. When you were running La Varenne, was it obvious which of the students had real talent?


A. You can tell straight away. Someone stands up straight, their eyes are looking around to assess the kitchen, and they know instinctively when to pick up a dirty pot and take it to the sink.

Q. By the time you opened, were you confident enough about your own cooking to hire chefs who had Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris without being intimidated by them?

A. One of the great surprises was that not just the staff [was respectful], but we had visiting chefs who came in the afternoons to do cooking demonstrations — quite a lot of the young chefs who were serving nouvelle cuisine — and I was surprised that very rarely if ever did a chef act condescending to me. I think perhaps they sensed a fellow enthusiast. And by then I’d been cooking professionally for 15 years, so I did know quite a lot about cooking.


Q. The book includes a humorous section called “Things I’ve Smuggled in My Suitcase.” Talk about some of those.

A. Because we lived in three different countries, I was constantly smuggling things to and fro and still am actually. I used to smuggle Mars bars for the children because European Mars bars make much better chocolates for ice cream than American Mars bars. And I used to smuggle in bacon, though actually the French wouldn’t have minded, for the chefs. They loved American bacon. And truffles from France for Julia Child, who was a good friend.

Q. Of all the books you wrote, is there one which you return to the most?

A. For recipe reference, it’s “French Regional Cooking,” which is the first book I wrote about country cuisine in France. It appeared in 1981 and to compile it — it has about 350 recipes — Mark and I drove around France and really explored the depths of the countryside. It was when nouvelle cuisine was really at its height and nobody was cooking regional food. Everybody’s looking for country dishes now and really enjoying simple foods and local ingredients, locavore and all of that, but in those days, not at all. So we bought little locally published regional cookbooks and we looked in the pastry shops and the charcuteries and that was where you found what the locals ate. I quite often go back to that book for things like confit and tarts from different regions and funny things like kouign-amann from Breton. That’s puff pastry, made of course with butter, but when you’re doing the last two rollings, you roll it with sugar. So you have this wonderful puff pastry but with sugar all interweaved. It’s really pretty difficult to do.


Q. Every cook has a few things they make regularly. What are yours?

A. Absolutely, tarte Tatin. And we always have in the freezer for guests or emergencies, my Aunt Louie’s cheese balls, which only take three ingredients. We often have financiers [almond cakes], which have now become famous but when we first made them at school, they were not very well known. We make oxtail stew; we made some just last week. And French roast chicken, of course, nearly every week.

Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at glenn.yoder@globe.com.