English chef finds new home and new inspiration
By Russ ParsonsL.A. Times-Washington Post News ServiceSANTA MONICA, Calif. – Anne Willan is shopping at Santa Monica Farmers’ Market when a young woman introduces herself.”I met you at a Les Dames (d’Escoffier) dinner,” she says. “I just wanted to say how glad I am that you joined our market.”Willan, perfectly coiffed and slightly regal in a well-tailored wool suit, thanks her politely, perhaps a little taken abackby the casual greeting. A guiding force in the cooking world for decades, Willan has made her home in Los Angeles since Christmas. After 25 years of living in an 18-bedroom French chateau, this very proper Englishwoman may still be feeling like a duck out of water in Southern California.Though she may not have instant name recognition, Willan’s La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy is regarded as one of the finest in the world.She has a Lifetime Achievement award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, is a Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and has been named to the Australian World Food Media Awards Hall of Fame.She’s written at least two-dozen well-received cookbooks, including two culinary bibles: “La Varenne Pratique” and “French Regional Cooking.”Her books have been published in 24 countries and translated into 18 languages. Her most recent, “The Country Cooking of France,” came out in September.Last fall, Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, decided to leave France and join their daughter, Emma Cherniavsky, and her husband, Todd Schulkin, in America.In December, they moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Marina del Rey.For Willan, it’s the latest chapter in a life that reads like fiction.Raised in a wealthy family in Yorkshire, England, Willan graduated from Cambridge in 1959 with a master’s degree in economics. She still speaks in a polished English accent that makes her dry sense of humor crackle.While teaching at a finishing school, she took classes at London’s famed Cordon Bleu cooking school.”That changed everything,” Willan says. “Once I did that, I never wanted to do anything else. When I found cooking, it was decided for me. I just had to do it.”With her parents’ grudging support, she went to Paris to finish her studies, earning the coveted Grand Diplome in 1963.Living on a small inheritance, she moved into a small apartment and put an ad in the International Herald Tribune: “Cordon Bleu cook will give lessons and cook for dinner parties.”There were six replies, she recalls, including “one from a gentleman who wanted me to cook `intimate dinner parties’ in his suite.”But there was a better offer scrawled on stationery from Chateau de Versailles. It read: “I have Mexican cooks. I am starting to entertain at the Chateau de Versailles so I want my cooks to learn French cooking. Please come to see me.”The note was from the American-born philanthropist and socialite Florence van der Kemp, who had recently married her third husband, the curator of Versailles.Willan started out by giving twice-a-week cooking classes and wound up living at Versailles – in an attic over the servants’ quarters.While working for van der Kemp, Willan cooked for the duke and duchess of Windsor, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and the Countess Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec.Another dinner party guest was Cherniavsky, a young World Bank economist. The two fell in love, and when Cherniavsky was transferred to Washington, D.C., a year later, Willan moved to New York. There, with the help of van der Kemp, she secured a job as an editor at Gourmet magazine. A year later, she and Cherniavsky were married and she moved to Washington to become the food editor of the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper.For the next decade, they bounced back and forth between the U.S. and France. While Cherniavsky worked for World Bank, Willan taught cooking and wrote — her fledgling effort in the cookbook world was editing Cordon Bleu’s 20-volume Grand Diplome Cooking Course encyclopedia.In 1975, Willan opened La Varenne in Paris. In 1982, she and Cherniavsky bought Chateau du Fey, near Joigny, Burgundy. And in 1991, they moved the school there.Her intention for La Varenne, she says, was to offer the culinary equivalent of a college education.”I wanted (the students) to go away looking at food in a different way,” she says. “It was a direct outcome of the habits of analysis one is taught at a good university. I wanted them to go away from a dish thinking about what the tastes had been and how the chefs had gotten them, where the ingredients had come from, what the background of the food was, what the chef had been trying to do, was it country cooking or classical cooking?”Eventually, Willan may teach here.But right now, her concern is bookshelves. She and her husband are ardent collectors of many things, particularly books. They have more than 5,000 volumes, including a second edition “Le Cuisinier Francois” from 1652 by Francois Pierre de la Varenne, her school’s namesake, and a 15th-century incunabulum (early printed book) of dietary instructions for monks. In fact, the couple are working on a book about their book collection.Food seems central to Willan’s existence. Indeed, it serves as a refuge during this hectic transition — a safe home base to which she can always return.In Los Angeles, she’s already visited the Saturday Pico farmers marketand she was very impressed by the Santa Monica Wednesday market.Though the farmers market in Joigny has history (operating more or less continuously since Roman times), splendid poultry, a foie-gras producer and wonderful cheese merchants, she says the produce in Santa Monica is much more diverse and mostly better than what she could get in France.”You can tell that this market has really been supported by the local community and the chefs and the local government. I get a very strong feeling of a market that is looking to the future, of accomplishing something important, of showing the way,” she says.Inevitably, California seems to change cooks who move here, even Willan. She can already see that happening.”It’s changed me already, without my making any deliberate decisions,” she says. “I’m one who always picks up what looks best when I go to the market and that is so different here than in France. We are eating much more meat – even beef, which we never ate in France. And much more greens and much more fruit.”And we’re eating funny things like seeds and sprouts. We eat a lot of mixed salads as first courses: some nice greens and crumbled cheese and then something crunchy for the top and something crunchy can be nuts and seeds. It’s really very nice.”We always thought we’d end our days in France. But I think we’ll be fine,” she says.”This is such a great place for food. It’s a wonderful place to cook. The ingredients are outstanding, and there is so much going on. I do miss the cheese, though.”
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