For more than a half-century Anne Willan has been passionate about food. Founder of the École de Cuisine la Varenne, the French cooking school she operated from 1975 to 2007, Willan has written more than 30 food-related books, including her latest, The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers and Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook, a history of recipes based on the extensive cookbook collections she and her husband acquired over the years.
"Every class is different, which is what is so wonderful about teaching. You never know what will happen."
Now living in the Santa Monica, Calif., where she and her husband relocated to be closer to their daughter, Willan no longer teaches regular cooking classes, although she regularly invites celebrity chefs to her kitchen to conduct small classes with students. In Houston recently to take Central Market Cooking School patrons on a wine-and-cheese tour of France, the 74-year-old author and cookbook specialist spoke with CultureMap about her new book, revealed her favorite cooking utensils and the secret to a perfect baked chicken.
CultureMap: How many cooking classes have you taught?
Anne Willan: In my life? Goodness, nobody has ever asked me that. I started when I was 22, so that's more than 50 years ago. For 30 of those years I would have given a class a day. That's a lot.
CM: What have you learned from teaching?
AW: Every class is different, which is what is so wonderful about teaching. You never know what will happen.
CM: How has the move to California been?
AW: You can't beat the climate and there's lots going on in LA on the food scene, the outdoor markets and the produce. You have to look for it, but there's good fish. But I miss the cheese from France.
CM: What else do you miss, food-wise?
AW: I miss the sauces, the braises. No grilled meat or roast meat is served (in France) without a different sauce.
CM: Your latest book seems to be close to your heart.
AM: This goes way back, to shortly after we were married when we started collecting used cookbooks. It was my husband particularly who loves books and loves collecting. Our oldest cookbook dates to 1491. It's not strictly speaking a cookbook. It's a book on how to live in a monastic community. We found it in France and it's in Latin. We got so involved with these books that we wanted to write something about the collection.
About 10 years ago we started thinking about it. He had a stroke and unfortunately couldn't do it. So I got all involved with the writing of it. And then it became, of course, a very different book.
I love history so I like to take a very wide view of history. I take a look at the medieval kitchen, the ingredients of the new world and literacy in the kitchen, or the lack of it, of course, for many centuries. The stewing stove, that's the raised stove so people were no longer cooking over an open fire, radically changed what you could do because you could control the heat. But of course, it wasn't nearly as hard work.
"The stewing stove, that's the raised stove so people were no longer cooking over an open fire, radically changed what you could do because you could control the heat. But of course, it wasn't nearly as hard work."
CM: When did that happen?
AW: The first demonstration of it, I think, though I don't want to be categoric, is 1570. There was the Italian cookbook by Bartholomew Scappi (1500-1577, perhaps the most important Renaissance text of Italian cuisine). But it didn't become the norm in kitchens, except for the very wealthy, until the 18th century, really quite late. For example the first American cookbook was in 1796. One can assume that the recipes were meant for cooking over the open fire.
CM: Why do you think the kitchen has become such a large part of our lives now?
AW: Well it's a different dynamic because even in the '60s there was probably a cook in the kitchen. My mother was married before World War II and (my parents') house was built to have a parlor maid and a cook living in. It sounds like we were wealthy, but we weren't at all. And the cook lasted until she retired in the early fifties and then my mother took over. And certainly in Europe that was the period when suddenly you did your own cooking. Everybody did.
And that was one reason I went to the Cordon Bleu in London as a student because I enjoyed cooking and my mother didn't. I wanted to find out more about it. And they asked me to stay on and teach. And I never looked back. That was in 1961.
CM: What advice do you give to someone who is frightened about cooking?
AW: When you are eating out, think about the things that you really enjoy, and try them out at home. Simple things. Of course if you use only three ingredients, you've got to use them right. Just make a simple salad and whisk up a dressing. Taste everything. Taste the salad. Taste the dressing. Dip in a leaf and taste that. And see if it needs more of whatever. Taste the olive oil you're using. Taste the vinegar. Is it a really acid lemon or is it a Meyer lemon?
One of the most difficult things to get students to do is taste everything along the way. Chefs should even taste the water when boiling pasta.
CM: What is one ingredient you can't live without in your kitchen?
AW: Cheese. A bit of grated cheese will pick up all sorts of things. Grated Parmesan is the obvious one, but grated Gruyère is in fact the one the French use. You can put it in a salad, on top of fish. Or cook fish in a mix of grated Parmesan and salt if you're frying fish or baking. And goat cheese is good in things, just crumbled. Bleu cheese, too.
CM: Do you have a least favorite ingredient?
AW: I can't eat beet root. I had an unfortunate experience when I was little. Someone threw up beet root all over. It's much sweeter than one sort of thinks. You think it's a vegetable but it's not.
CM: In terms of utensils, what can't you live without?
AW: A good knife and a whisk for mixing and fluffing things. You can substitute something else for most things but not, of course, for a good knife and a whisk.
A favorite utensil of mine is a really good strong two-prong fork. I test the cooking of things. You can dig it into a roasted meat and lift it out to test how warm the meat is in the middle and you can tell if it's cooked or not. It's very useful for flipping things. No French cook use tongs, they flip with a two-pronged fork. In the old days, you could tell if someone was French trained or not.
A fork is very useful. You can pick up a roast chicken to check the juices. If they run clear, it's cooked. And if they run red, it's not done. It's an absolutely infallable test for roast birds.
CM: What is best tip to prepare a meal in 15 minutes?
AW: Always get organized. If you really really are limited for time you have to think. There's a wonderful old book called French Cooking in 10 Minutes, by Edouard de Pomaine. He said when you walk in the door, put on a pot of water to boil and turn on the oven. And then start.
CM: What is your favorite meal?
AW: Roast chicken.
CM: Any tips on how to do that well?
AW: Cut out the back bird (a little one), flatten it and then we usually do it in olive oil because it burns less, in a big skillet, you put a brick on the top. A brick wrapped in foil and press it down. A bit before that, insert herbs possibly mixed with salt and pepper a bit of butter, underneath the skin. You do the inside butt side down first and then you flip it, taking 15-20 minutes to a half hour and then put it in the oven.
It's delicious every time. It's not in any of my books — not yet.