British founder of the bilingual La Varenne cooking school in Paris, veteran cookbook author and world traveler Willan traces her experiences through piquant anecdotes, including favorite recipes that mark salient memories and friendships.
From her Yorkshire roots to a Cambridge education, training in Paris to marriage, American citizenship, entrance into “worldliness,” the creation of La Varenne, envisioned as an alternative to the famed Cordon Bleu, La Varenne’s closure and her later career teaching at venues such as the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, Willan admits to a life often characterized by luck and privilege. With the assistance of Friedman, she narrates with ease, briefly recalling encounters with elite personages and celebrated chefs such as Julia Child. Without self-aggrandizing, such moments vivify a slice of the gastronomic world, particularly during the 1970s, when women were seldom permitted in professional kitchens, nouvelle cuisine was finding its footing, and the explosion of the Food Network had yet to occur. The handful of less-than-flattering scenes—such as those revealing quirks of students and colleagues—are treated with gentle humor, and the author mentions hardships with graceful aplomb. Willan segues between chronology and recipes in a straightforward manner, resulting in an episodic career memoir interwoven with momentous life occasions, from cross-Atlantic moves to weddings and deaths. Compelling chapters on La Varenne in Paris and its courses at Château du Feÿ in Burgundy reveal the pleasures and complications of working in the kitchen, though readers seeking more in-depth details will find these chapters too few.
A charming, if not revelatory, portrait of a woman determined to bring French cuisine to a wider audience, with emphasis on traditional, accessible recipes that respect the intellectual side of cookery. Recommended for Francophiles and culinary enthusiasts.