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.
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.
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.
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.
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 today. How 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 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.