Anne Willan

Beverly Stephen - January/February 1996

Food Arts presents the January/February Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Anne Willan, prolific cookbook author and leading culinary educator.

Disarmingly ladylike and gracious, British-born Willan is nonetheless an imposing authority who had the temerity to challenge the french on their own turf when she founded her cooking school, La Varenne, in Paris in 1975.

"We were in direct competition with Le Cordon Bleu," Willan recalls, "but we did things differently. We translated classes into English so that everything was essentially bilingual, and we gave written recipes. It was an interpretation of what french food meant."

At first it was slow going, but La Varenne quickly turned out the corner when Willan engaged super publicist Yannou Collart, who suggested inviting journalists to classes. "We got a full page in Newsweek, and we were booked up overnight," Willan recalls.

Back then, the students were all foreigners and more avocational than professional. "People came because they wanted to cook," Willan says. "There were not such clear career paths then or so many cooking schools. But we have been extraordinarily successful in turning out people who reach places in the food field—chefs, writers, editors."

Indeed, Willan herself, like many women of her generation, didn't start out with a specific career in mind. "But my mother recently told me a nice story," she recalls.

"She reminded me I was always in the kitchen with our cook, who said, 'That child is going to do something domestic, it was years before either of parents appreciated her accomplishments.

"My father always said, 'after all that education, how can you cook?'" says Willan, who holds a degree in economics from Cambridge.

Willan trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris and then worked as a personal assistant to Florence Van der Kemp, whose husband, Gerald, was then curator of Versailles.

After two years in Paris, It was off to New York, where she quickly landed a job at Gourmet magazine. Soon a courtship blossomed with Mark Cherniavsky, an economist with the world Bank whom she met years before in England. When they married, she relocated to be with him in Washington, D.C. She became food editor of the Washington Star, had two children, and wrote her first cookbook, Entertaining Menus. "Of course, once I started writing books, I never stopped," she says. her prodigious output includes the culinary encyclopedia La Varenne Pratique and the 17-volume Anne Willan's Look & Cook series (both of which have been published in 20 different countries and translated into 15 languages), as well as 14 other books.

When Cherniavsky had the opportunity to take a position with a European investment bank, they returned to Europe to live and Willan founded La Varenne.

In 1982, the couple purchased Chateau du Fey in Burgundy, originally thinking of it as a country home, but in 1991, they relocated the la Varenne operation there. "The program evolved into total immersion in the French countryside and food," Willan says. This year, a special curriculum for professional chefs called "French cooking Today" was added. Willan also runs a program in the spring at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Cherniavsky now retired form banking, is the business manager of La Varenne, and the couple divide their time between their homes in Burgundy and Washington, D.C.

"I am very pleased," says Willan, looking back at the evolution of her professional life. When all is said and done, however, it's not the school of the books of which she is most proud. It's her children, Emma, 23, and economist with World Bank, and Simon, 25, who until recently, ran a catering business n Moscow and is now a business student in France.