Profile: Cookbook Author Anne Willan & Gougères
Anne Willan is a very good cook. But that’s a big understatement—sort of like saying that Meryl Streep is good at reciting lines or that Georgia O’Keefe painted pretty flowers. Over the last five decades, Anne opened an influential and popular cooking school in France, wrote more than 30 cookbooks, and became an authority on French cooking. She has won multiple James Beard Foundation awards and was inducted into its Cookbook Hall of Fame. She was also awarded the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for popularizing French gastronomy.
“I always loved to eat,” Anne told me on a recent Thursday morning. We sat in her spacious, well-equipped kitchen in Santa Monica, California, drinking coffee and snacking on heavenly financiers she’d just pulled out of the oven, and talking about her remarkable culinary journey.
An only child, she grew up during World War II in Wensleydale, a remote place in North Yorkshire, England. “My father was away at war,” she told me. “So, it was just me, Mommy, and our cook, Emily.” Emily did all the cooking, using Anne’s mom’s recipe collection and letting Anne help her in the kitchen. Thursdays were usually baking days, and even though food was rationed, Emily was able to create a lot out of limited supplies. “It was so exciting—she would park me in a chair and let me roll out the ginger biscuit dough. I absorbed a lot during those times.”
After getting a master’s degree in economics at Cambridge in the late 1950s, and with very few job prospects as a woman—“I thought I’d be damned if I was going to take a secretarial course”—she heard about Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London and signed up for classes. She was hooked right from the start; she had found her calling. After 18 months, she decided to delve more deeply into French cooking techniques and learn how to clarify consommé, whip up a soufflé, and make blanquette de veau aux morilles—in other words, to move to Paris and get the Grand Diplôme at Le Cordon Bleu.
To support herself during her studies, Anne placed an ad in the International Herald Tribune: “Cordon Bleu cook cooks for dinner parties and gives cooking lessons.” An American socialite named Florence Van der Kemp, who was married to the curator of Versailles, answered the ad and hired Anne. The celebrity couple lived in the chateaux and entertained often (Charles de Gaulle, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco). Anne’s job was to oversee the kitchen and teach French cooking to their Mexican cook, Bernadina. An example of dishes on their menu: boeuf à la mode (braised beef with root vegetables), pommes dauphine (potato puffs), chaud-froid de poulet (chicken in an aspic sauce), or abricots à la Condé (rice pudding with apricots).
It was in Paris where Anne met her future husband, Mark, a World Bank economist. When a job took him across the Atlantic, she followed. He was based in Washington, D.C., and she in New York, answering letters at Gourmet magazine (“I am a monk, and I am in charge of dining for our order. I want to make Beef Wellington but need instructions…”). Later, after they got married and moved in together, Anne became the food editor at The Washington Star. She also wrote her first cookbook at that time, called Entertaining Menus, and started translating and editing Grand Diplôme Cooking Course, a 20-volume encyclopedia.
In the early 1970s, Mark grew impatient with his job and decided it was time to move back to Europe. “I agreed,” Anne recalled, “but I told him we need to find something for me to do.”
On November 10, 1975, La Varenne (named after a 17th-century chef) opened its doors on Rue Saint-Dominique in Paris and welcomed its first students. Local chefs taught classic techniques in French, and Anne translated, as most students were international. “I filled a niche,” she said.
It was different from the snooty, backward Paris Cordon Bleu—there was plenty of room and good equipment, people were treated with respect, and students learned more than 500 recipes over 36 weeks, instead of 300 at Le Cordon Bleu. There were three levels of classes: beginner, intermediate and advanced, leading to a Grand Diplôme.
Over the years, Anne wrote a handful of best-selling cookbooks—LaVarenne Pratique, LaVarenne’s Paris Kitchen, and LaVarenne’s Basic French Cookery, to name a few— stemming from her experience at the school. The list of guest teachers who passed through the kitchen at La Varenne reads like a who’s-who of the gastronomical world: Joël Robuchon, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Chuck Williams, Alice Waters, and Julia Child, whom Anne first met in the early 1970s and remained close friends with until Julia’s death. In 1982, Anne and Mark bought the 18-bedroom, 17th-century Château du Fey in Burgundy and renovated it. Ten years later, they moved the school there.
Today, the couple are retired and live in Southern California. Anne still teaches occasionally and continues writing books. “The next one is going to be on the history of women cooks; I will start with Hannah Woolley and end with Julia.” And this July, they will mark their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrating in their beloved France.
Age 78 — Hometown Northallerton, Yorkshire — Where do you live? Santa Monica, California — Occupation Cookbook author, founder of La Varenne cooking school — Signature dish Cheese soufflé — Who taught you how to cook? Old Emily, our family cook — Favorite kitchen tool A whisk — Always in your pantry Cheese — Go-to snack Cheese — Favorite cuisine French — Do you diet? Not really — Food addictions Foie gras — Food allergies None — Food fad pet peeve Beets — Who’s your sous chef? Lauren Glenn, my assistant — Drinking while cooking? No — What’s for dinner tonight? Braised oxtail with buttered broccoli — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? No — Best meal you ever had 1962, la Tour d’Argent. We had shellfish soufflé and pressed duck. — Contact lavarenne.com
Gougères (goo-ZHAIR) are very addictive, savory French treats flavored with Gruyère cheese and made from choux (shoo) pastry. This sticky and paste-like dough—flour gets mixed with boiling water, melted butter, and eggs—is also used as a thickener for dumplings or in cream puffs, éclairs and profiteroles.
“Gougères have been the star of many a cocktail party,” says Anne. “They disappear before anything else! I often freeze unbaked gougères on the baking sheet, storing the shaped puffs in a bag in the freezer, so I can bake them just before serving.”
- Yields about 24 gougères
- 1 cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
- 1 egg, beaten
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and adjust an oven rack to the bottom position. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the water, salt and butter. Heat over medium heat until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat when the mixture starts boiling.
- Place the saucepan on a kitchen towel to keep it in place. Add the flour, and using a sturdy whisk or wooden spoon, beat vigorously, until it pulls from the pan sides and no flour is visible, about 30–60 seconds. Add 1 egg at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition until it’s fully incorporated. The dough should be shiny and just fall from the spoon. Mix in the cheese.
- Using two medium spoons, scoop out the dough and drop it onto the baking sheet, creating mounds about 2 inches wide and 1½ inches high. Leave about 2 inches of space between mounds. Alternatively, place the dough in a cake decorating bag fitted with a tip, and squeeze the dough out into mounds the same size as described above.
- Create the glaze by mixing the egg with the salt in a small bowl. Brush each piece lightly with the glaze, and sprinkle with some of the cheese.
- Bake in the oven until golden brown and puffed, about 25–30 minutes. Do not open the oven for the first 20 minutes. Gougères often seem to be done too soon, so after 25 minutes of baking, take one out, let cool slightly, and see if it is ready before removing the rest—they should be crisp on the outside and soft inside. They taste their best warm from the oven.
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