It's not often in life that one has the opportunity to work with a legend. My chance came in 2006 when I was selected as an editorial assistant to Anne Willan, prolific cookbook author and founder of La Varenne Ecole de la Cuisine. For six months, I lived and worked at her home Chateau du Fey, in Burgundy, France, going over proofs for her (then) about-to-be-published The Country Cooking of France and testing recipes for her just-now-released The Cookbook Library, a beautifully illustrated overview of how cookbooks have evolved over the centuries. The latter was inspired by Anne and her husband Mark Cherniavsky's extensive collection (read: floor-to-ceiling shelves) of antiquarian cookbooks. I learned many things from Anne during those months, including how to properly test and write a recipe, how to make a perfectly fluffy souffle (a clean copper bowl, a whisk, and plenty of elbow grease), and how to drive a stick shift car (trial and error).

I recently reconnected with Anne in NYC at her book signing event for The Cookbook Library. She and Mark live in Los Angeles now, and it was great to see them as well as several La Varenne alumni. Despite Anne's 74 years, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Currently promoting her new book, she's also working on a memoir which will be released by St. Martin's Press in the Fall of 2013. She'll be hosting several cooking classes this fall at her Los Angeles home (check her website for details) and her encyclopedic cooking guide La Varenne Practique will be available soon on ebook. (Which is great news for anyone who's every tried lugging around the 528-page tome!) The e-book will include the original recipes, plus a brand new crash course on Cooking and Baking.

Anne was kind enough to chat with me about her new book, her extensive cookbook library, the early days of La Varenne, and what she misses most about Burgundy (spoiler alert: the cheese!). Anyone that's ever worked or studied with Anne, or simply learned from any of her cookbooks, is sure to enjoy the following conversation...

You’ve got a new book The Cookbook Library (University of California Press, 2012). I know you’ve been working on this project for years – what was the inspiration for this book?

Mark and I have always collected books. After something like 25 years, we were getting more interesting books and older books, and we said to each other, “You know, we should be writing down what we’ve got because people might be interested.” And then we got to talking to (literary agent) Lisa Ekus and she said, “Oh this must be a book!”

We had continued to collect books–especially a lot of older cookbooks– as we were always thinking about this potential project (though we were just thinking of printing it ourselves and sending it around to friends). Around 2003 we were at the IACP conference and Lisa, whose contacts are amazing, knew Darra Goldstein [Food and Culture Editor for the University of California Press] and thought she’d be interested in talking about the project.

So we all sat round a table together at IACP and Darra said this was a project she’d like to add to the University of California Press collection, but that it had to be “a really serious book.” She said, “it’s got to have quite a lot of research, with recipes in it, and lots of illustrations.” We all, in about an hour – which is how happy things happen – sketched out more or less the book you see now.

Were you using your own books for the research?

Pretty much. Kyri Claflin [a food history professor at Boston University] came over to France and did a great deal of research from our collection. She did most–but by no means all–the background research, and then later on I took over writing it after Mark had his stroke. Originally he was going to be the one writing it and I was going to do the recipes.

How many books you have in your collection?

There are about 200 antiquarian books, that is to say the books written before 1800. But we, as you know, have a lot more books than just these!

Where did you find these books?

It’s Mark that finds them still. From the beginning he would go to used book stores. We didn’t get into antiquarian books until we had been collecting quite a long time, like 25 years. Mark got very friendly with the rare book dealers throughout Europe when we were living in Paris (from ‘75 to ‘85) because he was traveling a lot for his work. London, Amsterdam, Rome, and a bit to Germany – wherever he went, he would go to the antiquarian bookstores and to the print dealers.

The Cookbook Library is full of beautiful old prints pertaining to food and cooking. Tell me about those.

Actually that’s at least as interesting a subject as the books because there are very few old prints that focus on food. Mark really searched quite seriously, and anything you see in the book that’s pre-1800 is very hard to find. Because, I think, people back then sort of felt that you should put it [food] on the table but not on the walls.

Most of the prints in The Cookbook Library are originals. Some of them are Larmessin (Le Cuisiner, Le Caffetier), engravings where people are made of the things that they sell. We have about half a dozen Larmessin. But Archimboldo, the 16th century Italian painter known for his portraits of people created entirely from fruits, vegetables, or grains, started the trend in food prints.

A few of the pictures in the book have never seen before. The funny one with the woman holding the frying pan over the fan – with a lover squeezing her bosom – has never been seen before. I think it’s fairly late, 1815 or something. Some of them are very well known, such as Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street.

What’s the oldest book in your collection?

Mark said that we should have an incunabulum [i.e. a book printed before 1501] to anchor the collection – it’s in Latin of course. The book is from 1494 and it gives instructions on how to live in a monastic order. And so it’s quite a lot about fasting and feasting, which is fun. It does have a gastronomic aspect.

The book is full of fascinating tidbits from gastronomic history. Can you tell us about the controversy of the fork?

Well, originally it was supposed to symbolize the devil. The first forks had 2 prongs like a devil’s pitchfork. It was considered bad luck to use one. It wasn’t until the Renaissance where the worry about sin and the things you could/couldn’t do began to dissipate.

Previously people just used spoons and fingers to eat. If you were making soups or stews, they had to be thick enough to scoop up with your fingers. You had to be able to tear to up the meat and the sauce had to be thick enough to cling to the meat.

This process of writing/researching this book must have really given you a comprehensive history of our eating habits over the centuries. Were there any surprises?

One thing that was interesting to see was when people ate the main meal of the day. Of course I’d never thought about it, but until electricity was invented, only the wealthy could afford to light the room with candles, so you had to eat the main meal of the day before it got dark.

Another subject is very interesting is literacy. It’s a very difficult subject because not many people wrote about it or even commented on it until the late 18th century. So it was very difficult to know who in the kitchen was able to read and write. At the beginning, I’m pretty sure (though its impossible to prove) that no one who was actually cooking in the kitchen knew how to read and write. And so the early books would be written usually at the initiative of someone else – kings, popes, cardinals or someone else who wanted to document what was going on in their household.

On page 110 in the book, there’s a picture of a female cook in the kitchen from 1554, which was unusual. Though women were of course cooking, they weren’t cooking for grand lords and ladies. The cooks for the kings were men. Once you got women’s literacy starting to rise, you got women writing cookbooks. But that’s quite late – at the end of the 17th century.

Can you tell the Yellow Table readers a bit about the story of how you opened your cooking school La Varenne?

Well the seed was sown a long time before we actually opened the school…more than 10 years before, actually. I was at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and it simply wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be. I taught at the Cordon Bleu in London so I knew how good a cooking school could be…for people like me, that is to say, people who didn’t necessarily want to be working in restaurants, but who were interested in cooking and wanted to teach it and to write about it. The Cordon Bleu only had one chef – he was good, but he was a nasty old man and he didn’t speak any English, which was no problem to me because I made a point of learning French. But he wouldn’t answer questions and he didn’t talk much either so you simply had to watch everything he did and write it down, which I did. He didn’t have any written recipes, so learning was very much on your own initiative.

I felt it was very important in a school to have recipes that people followed. I felt that people should have a blueprint to follow that would turn out more or less the same every time. I felt at the time that I wanted to open a school where learning would be made easy – or at least easier than it was at the Cordon Bleu – and cover much more ground. And we did.

Recently I’d been working on my memoir (which will be published by St. Martin's Press in the Fall of 2013) so that’s taken me right back to starting the school. It’s amazing how much ground we covered in those first five years. I started out by having drafted 500 of the great classics: tornadoes Rossini, sole meuniere, all of the basics, puff pastry, stock, and all that. Very rapidly we got into French regional cooking. The chefs would talk about the dishes from where they came from. Chef Chambrette (one of the main cooking instructors) was very interested in Breton cooking because he lived there a long time, and he would talk about the Breton fish dishes and then Claude came from the Loire and he was talking about vegetable dishes there, and I started writing down their recipes. And we thought, why on earth don’t we put them in a book? But if we were going to do a book on French regional cooking, it must be a book that covers everywhere. So we traveled around France and visited all the different regions.

And then Jane Grigson came by – she was the cookery editor of The Observer in London – and she said we should do a French cooking course for them. The Observer French Cooking Course (which eventually became the La Varenne cooking course) taught you broiling and roasting and pastry and all the custards and creams with lots of illustrations. I think it would have started appearing in 1978 when French Regional Cooking first came out. And then it eventually became a book, The La Varenne Cooking Course. The actual dates of the book (which was published in the U.S. and the U.K.) were ‘80 and ‘82.

How did you find the chefs who taught at La Varenne?

Well we were very briefly partnered with Sofitel, who had the premises and one of the directors enjoyed good food and said “oh we’d like to use this rather sleazy bistro next door” for the cooking school. And it was a good idea! At the beginning they provided a chef, but he didn’t last very long.

Then we found Chef Chambrette. He and I were a marriage made in heaven. He’d had a 2-star restaurant in Paris, La Boule d’Or, and his food was wonderful. He was of course classically trained and knew all of the theory, and he was a very intelligent man. He walked in the door and we had a couple of classes going – one going on upstairs and one downstairs – and he kind of stood there and just looked at it. And I could see he was sort of turning the idea over in his brain. And he came back to our tiny little office, and he was a very preeminent chef so I certainly wasn’t going to ask him if he could cook! I basically talked to him for half an hour and tried to explain what we were trying to do there and I said as I always say to anyone to whom I’m going to offer a job: “Go away and think about it for 24 hours and let me know.” And he called me the following morning and he said “Merci Madame. J’accepte.”

And he joined the next week! He understood what we were trying to do right at the beginning. And not everybody got along with him at all – he could be difficult at times – but he was a wonderful teacher but you could sense his knowledge and passion.

Steve Raichlen was one of our very earliest trainees. He was at the Cordon Bleu when we started and he came over to take a look. He introduced himself - he was on a Watson Fellowship to study medieval cooking. And he came back after about 2 weeks and he said “I’ve been talking to my fellow students at Le Cordon Bleu and the pastry chef would very much like to meet you. I think he wants to move.” So I said I’d talk to him and Steve put me in touch with Chef Jorant. And Jorant left the Cordon Bleu and came to us! We were very lucky because he was a great teacher, very meticulous, very precise, and a wonderful pastry chef. His pastries were delicious and all looked exactly the same – same size, same color, and beautifully decorated. And that’s the test of a really great pastry chef.

What was your relationship with Julia Child? Did you ever teach together?

Julia was a huge supporter of La Varenne. She would come visit us, and she would stay for lunch and talk to the students. And she would possibly attend a demonstration or two. But she and I never taught there, because I felt very strongly that if you come to France you want to learn the French way from the French. And Julia felt the same.

Were most of your students American?

We thought in our naiveté that we’d get half and half (half American and half French) but we never really did. Most of our students were American. You see there are excellent free schools for all French citizens (state schools) under the apprenticeship programs.

It’s amazing how many now-prominent magazine editors, writers, cooks, cookbook authors, etc. came through La Varenne! Did you ever anticipate that?

No, but it was obvious from the students and the trainees going through that they were going to do something with their knowledge, and as a result would hopefully go places. But I’d never really thought much beyond them working in restaurants and schools – although there weren’t many culinary schools in the states at the time. The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) had scarcely started, Johnston and Wales, very possibly not…and certainly not FCI (French Culinary Institute). L’Academie de Cuisine started the same year in Washington. And so students came to us, particularly if they didn’t want a food and beverage education, but wanted a broader culinary view for writing, teaching, editing, etc.

And then the food scene really started to explode and suddenly there were jobs testing recipes for companies, and working for newspapers, which I had done, of course. Newspapers were switching from home economists and dietitians to writers and cooks in the food section. And then food styling actually became a career. And since then, there have been all sorts of new culinary jobs.

Now that you’re living in California, what are you cooking these days?

We cook every night. We have a lot of vegetables because the produce here is lovely – we go to the farmers market every week. And it’s particularly good at the moment. The baby tomatoes are coming in and we’ve got the first cherries of the season and at last you can smell the strawberries when you walk by the stand instead of just seeing them – you know they’re no good unless you have that wonderful aroma! The Cheese is OK – we found a nice French market that does have a few good cheeses but there isn’t scarcely a cheese shop in L.A. that’s as good as one of the ones in Joigny.