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Modern Living: A Franglais Challenge To Cordon Bleu

5 minute read

“You can’t just learn French cooking from a book,” advises Julia Child—author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In fact, insists the doyenne of haute cuisine in America, the best way to master the arcane art is to go to school and learn it. “It’s like music. If you don’t know scales and chords and fingerwork, you can’t do much except slop around.” A culinary Juilliard School, by Child’s definition, “must be extremely well-run by someone who is absolutely devoted to it. And it must be in France, of course.”

Hence—of course—La Varenne, a new French cookery school in Paris sponsored by Child, fellow cookbook Authors James Beard and Simone (“Simca”) Beck, and other gurus of gastronomy on both sides of the Atlantic. What sets La Varenne apart from any other school of la cuisine classique in France is that it is run—efficiently—by an Englishwoman, Anne Willan—and it is the first full-scale school to offer lessons in English as well as French. Without mincing any mots, the well-financed academy has set out to challenge the haughty Cordon Bleu, the 80-year-old citadel of French culinary tradition that has become a synonym for distinguished cookery.

Wine and Criticism. La Varenne is by no means an academy for chefs. Consultant Child, citing the eminent Paul Bocuse’s definition of a chef as “a general who commands an army,” prefers to think of the school as “a clearinghouse for everyone who is even the tiniest bit interested in cooking.” The interest is evident. Since its opening last month, without advertising, La Varenne’s New York office alone has received more than 1,000 requests for brochures. Enthusiasts from all over the U.S. have signed up for La Varenne courses (from a week at $339 to two weeks for $831, including hotel). The school may be the hottest thing in Franco-American relations since crèpes suzette.

Named after François-Pierre de la Varenne, a 17th century French chef who wrote four treatises on food that are recognized as the first modern cookbooks, the Franglais school occupies an old restaurant building on the Left Bank’s fashionable Rue St. Dominique. Unlike the Cordon Bleu, which shuns up-to-date kitchen machinery and has, in the polite words of Gourmet Writer Craig Claiborne, “an aura of the last century,” La Varenne has two bright, buzzing, modern kitchens. One is at street level, used as the working classroom; the other, on the second floor, is for demonstrating the technique and art of cooking.

Students, no more than ten to a class, spend mornings making a variety of dishes from printed recipes that are posted daily without repetition for three months. After lunching on their handiwork, which is accompanied by democratic criticism and a modest wine, they adjourn to the demonstration kitchen. There one recent afternoon, Chef Michel Marolleau, 27, a mustachioed fellow with a shock of brown hair and an animated cutting-board manner, turned out a complicated chaudfroid de poulet—poached chicken filled with a mousse of foie gras, coated with a white cream sauce, glazed with chicken aspic and decorated with sculptured truffles. Under Anne Willan’s direction, the novices—five American women and one Vietnamese—themselves prepared potage dauphinoise (a classic soup combining beans and bacon), pepper steak flamed in cognac, and chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers in puff pastry).

As the teams of debutantes chopped, whisked, sniffed and browned, Director Willan darted around the steam-filled room offering counsel on trucs (tricks) ranging from “a more aesthetic way to slice apples” (horizontally, so they tilt into overlapping crescents) to puff-pastry mixing (“Loves, you must add all the water at once!”). “One of our main aims,” she preaches, “is to be practical, with modern machines, advance preparation and time-saving tips.”

Aside from being an unflappable practical cook, Yorkshire-born Anne Willan, 37, holds the coveted Grand Diplôme of the Paris Cordon Bleu, once taught at London’s impeccable (but unrelated) Cordon Bleu, edited the 20-volume Grand Diplôme Cooking Course, and for good measure has a master’s degree in pure economics from Cambridge University. Though loyal to the rich cuisine of Escoffier, Willan has developed many recipes that cut calories without diminishing drama. And she has a well-traveled palate. Of more than 120 appetizers, 350 entrees and 290 desserts taught at La Varenne, a number are non-Gallic. Some of the more intriguing: mousse of kipper, a North African-inspired “poor man’s caviar” (pureed eggplant with onions), tomates farcies à la chinoise (tomatoes stuffed with bean sprouts), sherry-soaked English trifle.

Salivary Successes. Desecration? Hardly. From its Medici origins in the 16th century, French cuisine has always been eclectic and evolutionary—a fact that critics accuse the Cordon Bleu school of ignoring. In part because of the genuine and widespread American appreciation of French cooking, its recipes, as well as its consumers and raw materials, are still changing. While skeptical before the opening, discerning Frenchmen have since been generous with praise for the school’s aims and salivary successes—its “alliance” as Le Figaro’s critic put it, of “American bonhomie and the French art of the table.” Taste-testing admirers have ranged from Carlotta Poussard, 90-year-old president of Cercle des Gourmettes, the Frenchwoman’s gastronomic society, to Michel Oliver, owner of the chic Bistrot de Paris, who said: “We need something like this in Paris.” La Varenne may not be training Napoleons of the kitchen; better a triumphant beef Wellington at home.

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