Anne Willan on La Varenne and the Folklore of Apple Peels

June 13, 2014

We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: Anne Willan, founder of La Varenne, talks to us about old heroes, new icons -- and the golden age of cooking. Read on to win a download of her new eBook!

Anne Willan  Delancey on Food52

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Once, La Varenne Pratique was that rare cookbook you only dreamt of laying your hands on. If you were lucky, you found it hidden among other treasures in an old bookshop or passed down from your aunt who used to live in Paris. It was the kind of book you had to search for -- but search you did. Because short of a plane ticket to France, it was the closest thing you had to a seat at La Varenne, Anne Willan’s legendary culinary school.  

Ypocras Spiced Wine by Anne Willan

La Varenne Pratique is a distillation of years of instruction: Over its 500 pages, Willan expertly guides readers through their first tarte tatin and their hundredth roast lamb. She’s the confidante you want in your kitchen when your aioli breaks, the first one you turn to when you can’t remember the difference between a French or Swiss meringue. 

More: We're giving away a couple downloads of the La Varenne Pratique eBook -- get the details below.

Willan has now brought La Varenne Pratique back to life as an eBook. Divided into a set of four volumes, it’s the same book we’ve always held dear -- now searchable, adaptable, and more immersive than ever. Read on as Willan invites us into the storied halls of La Varenne; you’ll never want to leave, and with Willan at your side -- or, at least, on your eReader -- you never have to.     

All about emulsification

What's the most important cooking advice you've ever gotten?
Never give up! Something that has gone wrong can almost always be saved. Stand back, take a deep breath, and all eventually can be made well. 

What cookbooks were most formative for you -- and which new ones have caught your eye?
Somehow, the most influential cookbooks are always referred to by first names -- Julia (Child), Jim (Beard), or Larousse (Gastronomique). I was brought up in England, so Mrs. B (Beeton) was important. After I got to France, Escoffier (Le Guide Culinaire) took center stage, and when I started writing my own recipes, Elizabeth (David) stood out. She combined clarity with enough background information to illuminate the context of a recipe. Her simplicity of phrase remains a model. 

As for recent cookbooks, Heston Blumenthal's Historic Heston takes a brilliant journey into my favorite subject, which is that of old cookbooks. And every time I open the covers of Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold (who was a student of mine for a short time), I am enthralled. 

More: Looking for another modern classic? Meet Hervé This' chocolate mousse

Chocolate Mousse by Herve This

What cooking technique was hardest for you to learn?
How to peel an apple. Of course, since childhood, I've been able to pare off bits and pieces from an apple with a peeler. But the rapid, professional way to peel an apple using a small, razor-sharp vegetable knife and holding the whole apple with the fingertips of your other hand is something else altogether. You should be able to spin the apple against the knife so the peel is detached in a single, even ribbon. Folklore has it that you're supposed to throw the ribbon over your shoulder, and it will show you the initial of your next lover. 

How has the way you cook changed since you started your career?
As a hands-on cook, I had to be wrenched into using machines. But now I rely on, and indeed could not be parted from, my hand-held electric blender, my KitchenAid mixer, my food processor, and my coffee grinder which is so handy for grinding fresh spices. The mortar I once used for crushing now has succulents growing in it. 

What inspired you to turn La Varenne Pratique into an ebook?
After La Varenne Pratique went out of print, we got so many requests from people inquiring about affordable copies because the ones in mint condition were up to $300. As technology progressed, we realized we could produce a digital edition which would make the book more easily and widely available at a very affordable cost.

Even though La Varenne Pratique was first published in 1989, the information presented is just as relevant todayHow to choose a good steak or the quickest way to chop an onion has not changed. And the thousands of technique shots in La Varenne Pratique are perfect for a computer or tablet screen, as they are almost video-like in their visual impact. 

How to chop an onion

How do today's La Varenne students differ from those of 20 years go?
Cooking students today are far more knowledgeable than when I started teaching fifty years ago. They eat out, they travel, they are much more adventurous than in the old days. And they think of good cooking not just as a trade but as an accomplishment, and at the highest levels, an art. With the plethora of new, challenging ingredients, and an informed audience eager to try new dishes, we cooks are enjoying a golden age.

Photo of Anne Willan by Siri Berting; all other photos by James Ransom.

We're giving away five downloads of the La Varenne Pratique eBook! To enter, tell us in the comments: Which classic cookbooks do you hold dear? We'll choose our winners this coming Monday, June 16.

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On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AWguest
  • brancica
  • jeanne Sheridan
    jeanne Sheridan
  • bookjunky
  • Georgia
Lisa is a noodle fiend and a chocolate hoarder. She probably wants to make you cookies.


AWguest June 18, 2014
I have the whole series of Anne Willan's "Perfect,' some of her 'Look and Cook', and her other books, as well. All the recipes in her cookbooks are very well thought of, sophisticated, and her seafood lasagna recipe is so elegant. I have Julia Child's books but I don't use it as much. I also always refer to 'The Good Cook' and Cook's Illustrated series.
brancica June 17, 2014
My go-to cookbook is the 1979 edition of Joy of Cooking. Practical advice and never fail recipes
jeanne S. June 16, 2014
The New York Times Cookbook
bookjunky June 16, 2014
Joy of Cooking is my go-to cookbook. Fannie Farmer. for more recent stuff, any of Ina Garten's or Martha Stewart's. These are all cookbooks that I know will give me good, reliable results on the basics.
Georgia June 16, 2014
I have just begun cooking and haven't yet read any Classic books. Brazil is very poor in culinary books! But I'd love to read Julia's and Jim's
CarlaCooks June 16, 2014
For me, it's tough to beat Julia. I often re-read Mastering the Art of French Cooking for the sake of feeling like I'm having coffee with Julia, hearing her tell me a story of how to cook something.
anne June 15, 2014
Well, don't laugh, but Jeff Smith's Frugal Gourmet series really taught me how to cook. I was all of 16 when his series was on PBS and I was new to the kitchen. "Hot pan, cold oil, food won't stick!" is a mantra I learned and teach to kids and friends to this day. Not exactly haute cuisine, but man, did he teach good technique and the best part, the history of those techniques and of the food related to them. The recipes always worked and were very useful in that it was food you could make on a weeknight. I learned to make salad dressings, crepes, french omlettes. All kinds of basics I am still making now. I refer to those tomes time and again, like old familiar friends.
Carrie June 15, 2014
Moosewood Cookbook and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone! So great!
Anne June 15, 2014
I will always be dependent on The Joy of Cooking and The Moosewood Cookbook for my day to day cooking and my more complicated questions!
Andria June 15, 2014
Julia, James, Simca, and any number of those lovingly compiled local charity cookbooks, like New Orleans' River Road Recipes, which convinced me that if those folks could cook, so could I.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My uncle convinced me that even if I could master only one of these recipes, I would indeed be a master of that dish, and it would be a winner. What I like about MAFC is the recipes within recipes format - so even if I can only devote one day a week to making one of these recipes it is an experience. I admit that I enjoy the struggle of a tricky dish because what is better than when you get it right. Merci, Julia!
Fay June 15, 2014
The Fireside Cookbook by James Beard. Love Julia, but the simpler JB recipes are more useful for everyday cooking.
R A. June 15, 2014
CondimentQueen June 14, 2014
The Silver Palate and Joy of Cooking are my go-to's
liz June 14, 2014
I hold many cookbooks dear to me - However it is very first cookbook brought back from Paris by my mother - that began my lifelong food journey-"La Cuisine est un jeu d'enfants" by Michel Oliver with an introduction by none other that Jean Cocteau! Printed in 1963. This book enthralled me with its French cursive writing and illustrations and all the French warnings about being disciplined- The recipes were not all for children but enough were to engage my 6 year old imagination. From that point onward my heart and soul belonged to France- I started in the first class of The Toronto French School and graduated with a degree in French Medieval Studies- Leaving after graduation to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. To this day as an Executive Chef with 3 decades dedicated to running kitchens and feeding people - I still set up my kitchens with a batterie and the discipline that first started when I opened the page of that special cookbook La Cuisine.. with the warning "Lavez- Vous toujours les mains" ( Always wash your hands )- My cooking is based on Les Fonds de la Cuisine and I have a very soft spot for tarragon and chervil, cornichons and Bearnaise to name but a few - best not to get me started on all things French that I adore. Santé
FinVoilaQuoi June 14, 2014
I think I baked my first cake from the Joy of Cooking book when I was about 14. However, I'm just starting to do "real cooking" so I don't have a go-to book. How about I make La Varenne Pratique that book?
Cathleen I. June 14, 2014
The Joy of Cooking introduced me to cooking and has remained a "go to" cook book over the decades. It still gives me confidence when I am not sure of a technique or cooking temperature. However, Pierre Franey's two volumes of "60 Minute Gourmet" truly inspired me as a young cook and gave me the courage to use products I had never heard of at the time, with pairings of foods that seemed dubious on first read but actually worked. I was delighted to prepare really amazing dinners for my family that used fresh ingredients, were easy to put together, and were truly 60 minute meals. I credit these books with my occasional cooking inspirations to this day.
Betsy S. June 14, 2014
My vintage, well worn, much used and oh, so charming, Better Homes & Garden cookbook. I got it used, years and years and years ago and still just love it, even though now I mostly use the internet for recipes. I like just seeing it in my kitchen.
sexyLAMBCHOPx June 14, 2014
The Professional Chef, Culinary Institute of America is well worn and used often - still.
Libby D. June 14, 2014
i was given The Art of French Cooking as a wedding present from my mother with a note that these were things I could afford to cook at some point, but probably not right now. How true that was!