Cookbook Love Letter: Anne Willan's La Varenne Pratique

Zac Overman

In honor of Valentine's Day, we've asked a few of our favorite food writers and chefs to tell us about the cookbooks they've really fallen hard for—the culinary tomes that have rocked their worlds and changed their lives, and still make their hearts, and their palates, go pitter-patter.

I have a sizable cookbook collection, but there's only one book that I owned before I really knew how to cook. The book reminds me of being 20 years old, homesick, nervous, and eager, and of a summer that changed my life, though it would be a long time before I realized it.

Anne Willan's La Varenne Pratique sits on a shelf in my San Francisco kitchen, and it's sat on the shelves in all of the kitchens I've rented or owned in the last 14 years: five homes on two coasts. On the title page of the book is an inscription from Anne herself. "Jessica," it reads, "Good luck in your culinary career, with warmest wishes from all of us at La Varenne."

It's weird that after all these years—nearly 15 since I spent the summer in France working for Anne at Château du Feÿ—what I remember best is her tireless arm.

The château housed Anne's cooking school, La Varenne, where I'd come to work as a low-level assistant. I was woefully underqualified for the role. During summers in high school and college, I'd worked for a catering company in my home state of Vermont, so my skill set included polishing Champagne flutes, serving slices of wedding cake, and gamely carrying bowls of bisque across uneven country lawns. And after college, I'd taken a job working at a small specialty food shop, though my experience there was largely limited to the register. I cooked at home, but only a small number of recipes I'd learned from my mom. I was interested in learning more, or thought I was, and when I appealed to the owner of the catering company, who had spent years working with Anne at the château, he suggested that if I really wanted to learn about food, to learn how to cook, I might want to apply for one of the annual stagiaire positions Anne offered. I can only guess that it was his recommendation that clinched the job offer.

I had no idea what I wanted to do, exactly, but I figured that spending the summer in Europe and expanding my repertoire beyond Shake 'n Bake chicken was better than any of my other plans.

I can't exactly remember when it happened, but the incident that came to epitomize that summer for me—and one that spoke volumes about Anne as a person—must have taken place during one of the demonstrations she and I would conduct for vacationing amateur cooks. These groups of visitors would throng the château, built in 1640, staying for a week in well-appointed rooms, enjoying sumptuous meals and classes and field trips to local markets and restaurants.

We must've been making soufflés, and Anne must have insisted that the egg whites be beaten by hand in copper bowls, rather than in the electric mixer—the same bowls we polished with salt and lemon juice each Sunday until our fingers tingled in preparation for the weekly "white glove test" that she conducted of the kitchen's cleanliness.

Whisking a huge bowl of egg whites with a balloon whisk until they hold stiff peaks, while a crowd of onlookers stare, is tiring. At first, you whisk quickly, the whites foaming and expanding. After a minute or so, the average wrist starts to tire a bit, and as you continue whisking, more slowly now, the hot pain of repetition creeps up your forearm. That's when you take a break, switch arms, or ask for a volunteer to take over—at least, if you're a normal person, that's what you do. But Anne just kept talking and whisking, showing no sign of distress, putting me to shame.

Those three months I spent in France were at turns idyllic and horrible. I was miserably homesick, away from my girlfriend for the first time and sure our relationship would crumble with the distance. And, though I was living in an 11,000-square-foot château in the Burgundian countryside, I hardly left the kitchen, which was both blessing and curse.

Anne quickly proved herself to be among the most disciplined people I'd ever met. After a breakfast of coffee and a sablé cookie (which we baked and individually wrapped, 14 per week, so both she and her husband could eat one each morning), she would plant herself at her computer, where she would diligently write, research, and see to her correspondence until lunch. She'd take a short break and dine with us, seizing the opportunity to impart her considerable wisdom on such topics as raw-milk cheeses, proper vinaigrette, and the flaws in the seafood mousse I'd spent all morning making, then return to her office for the balance of the afternoon.

Over lunch, Anne would issue marching orders that would have us cooking for the remainder of the day, a practical exercise that illustrated her commitment to teaching us the classical French canon—oeufs en meurette, a proper quiche, coq au vin, a maddening salad of peeled cherry tomatoes dressed with walnut oil. Once she'd settled on a dish and given instructions on how to make it, she'd nod agreeably, saying with her British trill, "It's much the best thing."

The château housed an enormous culinary library, 5,000 books strong, including rare, ancient volumes collected by Anne's husband, Mark Cherniavsky. Mark took great pleasure in sharing these books with us, carefully turning the onionskin pages of the oldest among them. In the few hours of free time I had each afternoon, I'd browse through the collection, but it was a worn copy of Anne's book La Varenne Pratique that I turned to most often. After a month or so of reading the book every night before bed, I no longer dreamt of home or my faraway love interest, but of gougères, pike quenelles with sauce Nantua, and slices of pâté crowned with glistening caps of aspic.

Anne intimidated the hell out of me, and when she peered over the top of her glasses to examine my attempt at crème anglaise or the loft of my soufflé, I would shrink from her inevitable criticism, her expertise informed by an encyclopedic body of culinary knowledge amassed over a lifetime of cooking, teaching, and researching. She criticized, of course, because she cared. Her insistence that we learn the right way to do things, and her confidence that even I, who'd never once made puff pastry, could turn out a golden layered mille-feuille, was affirming—albeit in a tough-love kind of way.

I felt more at ease with the Anne of the cookbook, who was a patient guide, a practiced and gentle teacher, one who never made the color in my cheeks rise. The brown-nosing student in me strove to memorize the book and all it contained in an effort to impress my instructor the next day.

Four full-color images taught me how to chop a shallot; four more taught me how to carve a cooked ham. As far as I could tell, there was no cooking question or method that La Varenne Pratique did not answer, and I consumed that book, committing mother sauce recipes to memory the way you commit to memory the details of your first kiss.

As the days of summer grew shorter and the chestnuts started falling from the trees around the château, littering the ground with their spiny husks, my time at La Varenne came to an end. In order to earn my Grand Diplôme from the cooking school, I had to pass a written and practical exam that required me to make three involved recipes from start to finish, in a few hours' time. My lot was a fish mousse decorated with tiny diamonds of green and red peppers, babas au rhum, and a braised chicken dish garnished with fried shrimp and heart-shaped toasts.

I passed. To mark the occasion, I was presented with an oversize certificate and my own inscribed copy of La Varenne Pratique. The book was a trophy celebrating a particular accomplishment, and I gratefully accepted it as such. But that summer, the book served as a roadmap for a path that Anne saw for me before I saw it for myself—and it has ever since.