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Anne Willan papers, 1570-2018

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Willan (Anne) Papers

Biographical / Historical Note

A few days before the École de cuisine La Varenne opened in Paris on the rue Saint-Dominique near Les Invalides in November 1975, the American food critic Craig Claiborne gave his blessing to the new cooking school in a New York Times article. Notwithstanding the smell of fresh paint and the necessity to make his way over the newly installed telephone lines, Claiborne described his visit to the establishment as uplifting. Named after the French cook François-Pierre de la Varenne (1618-1678), the school was from the onset endowed with the financial support and logistical advice of culinary experts Julia and Paul Child, James Beard, Simone "Simca" Beck, and that of Nick Brown-the brother of J. Carter Brown, director of the US National Gallery of Art. The cooking school benefited from the unwavering partnership of its director, Anne Willan, with her husband Mark Cherniavsky, a World Bank economist and a collector of antiquarian books. Willan ensured the continuing success of La Varenne and the culinary programs she directed in Paris, Burgundy, West Virginia, and later Santa Monica, California. In 2014, Willan was awarded the rank of Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur for her work over several decades on the promotion of French gastronomy.

Anne Willan was born on January 26, 1938, in Yorkshire, raised in a house near Newcastle surrounded by wheat fields, cattle, and church towers that could be seen over the hills in the distance. Her childhood memories are filled with freshly baked crisp ginger biscuits, tasty bacon, egg pie and pig lardon, with Thursday being the "baking day, the best day of the week." After receiving her master's degree in Economics from Girton College at the University of Cambridge, she pursued an advanced course at the Cordon Bleu School of Cookery in London. After completing these studies, to the chagrin of her parents, she did not marry the well-mannered son of the chief librarian of Oxford's Bodleian Library nor a fine Yorkshireman. Willan credits her restlessness to her adventurous and well-traveled maternal grandfather, whose wealth also helped finance some of her initiatives. Instead of returning to Yorkshire, she moved to Paris in the winter of 1963 and went on to earn a Grand Diplôme at the École de Cordon Bleu. Willan was then hired by Florence and Gérald Van der Kemp to help with their entertainment efforts related to raising funds for the restoration of the Château de Versailles. After a stint as a Gourmet Magazine employee in New York, Willan became a food editor for The Washington Star, and began writing cookbooks, developing a passion for food writing.

Willan's move to the United States was prompted by the appearance in her life of the cultured and worldly Mark Cherniavsky, whom she met while in Paris and whom she married on July 9, 1966. Born in Suffolk, England in 1937, Cherniavsky was the son of a Canadian from Vancouver and of a Russian-born cellist. He was raised in England, France and Canada, and educated at the University of Oxford. After briefly working for the Economist Intelligence Unit in Istanbul and then the Christian Michelsen Institute in Paris, he became an economist with the World Bank in Washington, DC in 1965. Cherniavsky's studies and career took Willan and their two children to Boston, Luxembourg and then Paris, where Cherniavsky joined the World Bank's Paris office from 1975 to 1986. After 1986, Cherniavsky returned briefly to work at the World Bank's office in Washington before taking an early retirement the following year. He then dedicated himself entirely to the activities of La Varenne and to his collecting.

Cherniavsky was a long-time collector of rare books, gathering antiquarian cookbooks, travel books, and associated texts, eventually amassing one of the world's largest private collections of antique cookbooks. The oldest book in his collection was an early edition from 1491 of Johannes Cassianus's De institutis coenobiorum (On the Management of Monastic Communities), which describes fasting and feasting within a monastery. The pride of Cherniavsky's collection is a copy of the Opera by Bartolommeo Scappi, who served as private cook to Pope Pius V. Scappi's Opera is marked by its authoritative didactic and expansive text (444 leaves or 888 pages), the harmonious layout of the Renaissance printing type, and its beautiful engravings that illuminate the preparation and serving of food at the papal court. Furthermore, these writings helped Willan find and test recipes and learn about the history of gastronomy, which were incorporated into the curriculum of La Varenne. Cherniavsky and Willan naturally selected, for their collection, writings that were written in languages they were fluent in. This led to the focus on French and English cookbooks.

Anne Willan's ambition when creating La Varenne was sparked by her negative experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the venerable school founded in 1895. A typo in Willan's name in the certificate of the Grand Diplôme had been the final blow. Willan's desire was to create an alternative path. Her concept for La Varenne was to teach the practice of food preparation in a setting encouraging dialogues and questioning, an approach that at the time had been discouraged by the Cordon Bleu master chefs. Unlike at Le Cordon Bleu, Willan wanted to use the highest quality and freshest ingredients in the cooking classes, a practice which eventually became a source of financial difficulties in the accounting books of La Varenne. She also wanted to promote the use of food processors, such as the Cuisinart designed by Carl Sontheimer, which at the time was shunned by the famed school. She incorporated down-to-earth approaches in classes, such as the use of an overhead mirror to facilitate the viewing of the chefs' techniques. Great emphasis was placed on the teaching of simple technical gestures, such as the proper cutting of an onion. The school offered a bilingual training program, which facilitated exposure of the program to students from abroad. Primarily aimed at students who would go on to become chefs and professionals in the food industry, the school's recruitment of trainees and interns to assist in writing recipes and cookbooks also helped mentor many of the future leading writers of major food publications in the United States.

In 1982, Willan and Cherniavsky purchased a weekend retreat for themselves and their two children a two-hour drive from Paris near Villecien, Burgundy: the Château du Feÿ. Beginning in 1988, some of the programming of La Varenne was transferred there. After the closure of the school's Paris location in 1990, a large portion of La Varenne's instruction was relocated in 1991 to Le Feÿ. Beginning in 1991, Willan also taught in television programs and cooking demonstrations at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. She became a prolific and popular author of cookbooks as well. In 2007, Willan and Cherniavsky decided to sell the Château du Feÿ and to move to Santa Monica, California. There, Willan pursued-instead of a full-fledge accredited program-the organization of cookery demonstrations with chefs established in California as well as her ongoing passion in food writing.

Sources consulted:

Claiborne, Craig. "Upstairs: A new school teaches distinctive cooking," The New York Times, November 5, 1975.

Willan, Anne. One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.

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