B U L L E T I N
Château du Feÿ, 89300 Villecien, France. (0)3-86-63-18-34/ Fax (0)3-86-63-01-33
P.O. Box 25574, Washington, DC 202-337-0073 / 800-537-6486 / Fax: 703-823-5438
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.lavarenne.com
Julia's Child's 90th birthday in August was celebrated from coast to
coast. Here, Anne Willan joins (from right to left) Julia's TV producer
Geoff Drummond and co-star Jacques Pepin, along with Boston restau-
rateurs Lydia Shire and Jasper White, at COPIA (The American Center
for Wine, Food and the Arts) in Napa, CA. The weekend of tributes fea-
tured speakers nationwide, and Julia was there to wow the crowds and
cut her birthday cake (her choice of a charlotte Malakoff au chocolat).
EAT MY WORDS
By Richard Ehrlich
admire chefs enormously. They make life much more enjoy-
able. Their fifteen-hour days are spent haggling with suppliers
and overseeing the staff including taking responsibility for
their mistakes. Chefs must contend with broken ranges, leaky
roofs, and late deliveries and remember to pay the bills and the
salaries. That’s before they even set foot in the kitchen at the
beginning of a busy evening when they must make sure everything
is running smoothly and the brigade is doing exactly what they are
supposed to be doing. I most certainly wouldn’t want to do their
job, so I must begin with a disclaimer: the following observations
are not intended to denigrate chefs, who do some of the hardest
With that said, I think it is time we fell out of love
with the misguided view of chefs as supreme arbiters of culinary
wisdom. Why should we assume that, simply because they run
restaurants, chefs are better teachers of the craft of cooking than
anyone else on the planet - including people who actually teach
cooking for a living? Cooking at home and cooking in a restaurant
are fundamentally different operations.
The veneration of the chef has a lot to do with the
peculiar two-way tension in the contemporary view of food.
continued on page 2
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More people than ever before have the money and enthusiasm to
take a serious interest in eating but they don’t have the time, or
probably interest, to put in the long hours needed to sharpen basic
cooking skills. Nor do they understand the principles of building
a dish, from buying the right ingredients to getting finishing
touches just right. Millions of people like to fantasize about
cooking, but know they can’t measure up to such exalted
perfection. This is where chefs come in. They cook effortlessly,
making what’s difficult look easy. Perhaps it’s only natural for us
to think these must be the people we should listen to because they
can prepare food on the TV that looks good and appears to taste
good. It may be a natural assumption but it isn’t true. This is a
bit like thinking you can learn to drive by watching a Formula One
car race, or play tennis by watching Serena Williams.
Certainly good chefs are supreme technicians. They
have to be able to fillet a sea bass faster than anyone else so as to
accommodate the high-pressure conditions under which they
work. But that doesn’t mean their cooking skills are better than
those of the rest of us. They just spend more time cooking than we
do and they work in a totally different environment. They convey
an aura of a rigorous approach that may look somehow scientific,
but in fact they are just individual cooks who sometimes do things
for no better reason than “That’s the way I was taught to do it.”
I have seen more foolish or unnecessary cooking
instructions in chefs’ cookbooks than in those written by people
who cook as a hobby. To take just one example: one very famous
chef tells the reader to blanch garlic in milk before roasting it. I
tested his method against poaching in water. Tasting the results
blind, no one could tell the difference, yet thousands of people may
be blanching garlic in milk because this chef tells them to.
Yes, I know: some of the most renowned cookbook
writers of the last century have been working chefs: Escoffier,
Boulestin and others. But it’s only in the last decade or so that
admiration for chefs has turned into blind veneration. Their work
is “aspirational,” a dishonest term usually applied to recipes that
are impossibly complicated. Chef-worship has resulted, too often,
in books and magazine columns that bear no relation to home
cooking. My shelves are crowded with the semi-useless fruits
of these labors.
Why semi-useless? Because chefs can do things in their
kitchens that no one, repeat no one, can do at home. It’s not just
the prodigious skill that’s required. It’s the complexity of the cook-
Richard Ehrlich is a weekly columnist for the food and drink
pages of the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday [UK], and
a regular contributor to ‘The Food Programme’ on BBC Radio 4.
He learned to cook by watching his mother and by working his
way through the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
ing, and the sheer number of man or woman-hours needed to
assemble all the components that will go together on the plate.
Even fairly modest restaurant kitchens may have one chef to sauté
the fish, another to make the sauce, two more for the potato and
vegetable garnishes. In a really grand kitchen, there may be
contributions from six or eight chefs sitting on the plate that goes
out to the customer. For instance, a recent menu from Charlie
Trotter’s featured Steamed Halibut with Braised Pig’s Tail, Morel
Mushrooms, Leeks, Wilted Lettuce and Fava Beans. I’d give my
right arm to eat this culinary extravaganza, but can you duplicate
the effort at home for a dinner party of six people? I know I can’t.
The chefs’ books that I do use for practical purposes
(rather than reference) are those from chef/writers who have
managed to straddle the great divide. Recognizing the gulf between
home and restaurant kitchen, they deliberately set out to simplify
what they can do in their professional kitchens so that ordinary
cooks can reproduce their food at home. Good editing plays no
small part here. It’s no accident that the best “cheffy” column in
the English language — “The Chef” in The New York Times is the
result of close collaboration between chefs and specialist writers.
One of them, Mark Bittman, has commented: “It is...virtually
impossible for any home cook to cook like a chef.”
If you really want to improve your cooking skills, you’re
much better off in the hands of a skilled writer. These authors
rarely attain celebrity status. They are people with a talent for
cooking and perhaps some formal training, but most of all they
have the ability to communicate what they know on the printed
page. For most of the history of cookery, people like this have
undertaken the prosaic job of teaching ordinary home cooks
how to feed their family and friends with limited time and a
limited budget. Their real training has come on the job. Even
better, in many cases, hands-on teaching has deepened their
knowledge of actual student cooks, whose mistakes they can
observe and learn from.
Is the tide turning? Friends and colleagues often say it
is, and I yearn to believe that they’re right. There don’t seem to be
quite so many high-priced chefs’ books appearing in publishers’
catalogues these days. When “celebrity chefs” — a term that
should be banned from the language — do go into print, they’re
more often likely to be edited these days by people who know how
to turn restaurant dishes into home cooking. This is a tacit
admission that while the name of the chef might be well known,
the recipes need help before they go into print. If you’ve bought a
book full of useless recipes because you recognized the name of a
famous chef, here is a tip I have found useful when using their
books: don’t think you have to make the whole dish. Lift out a
garnish or a sauce and just do that part — it will probably be
delicious, and the labor isn’t so daunting when you’re just dealing
with a single component.
Chefs will always be important in gastronomic culture,
and some will achieve the rare combination of communicative and
culinary gifts. As examples of that select crew, I would single out
Alice Waters and the several chefs with whom she has collaborated
on her outstanding Chez Panisse cookbooks. These are not just
collections of recipes but serious guides to the foundations of all
good cooking: top-quality ingredients, mastery of fundamental
skills, and a sound understanding of which ingredients work
together in the pot and on the plate.
But despite exceptions like these, the gulf between
professional and domestic kitchens remains vast. Editors need
to recognize that domestically based writers have more to say to
the average reader than any battalion of culinary geniuses. Readers
need to recognize the same thing. It can’t happen too soon.
ANNE WILLAN ON THE MOVE
The Greenbrier will be welcoming Anne for the 13th
La Varenne series early next spring: March 16-21,
March 23-28 and March 28-April 4, 2003. Anne hosts these
five-day sessions, teaching three morning classes, with
visiting chefs and guest teachers leading the other two
sessions. Optional hands-on participation classes are also
available. The Greenbrier package includes overnight
accommodations, morning and afternoon demonstration
classes, the guest chef lessons and gold service dinners,
golf, tennis and a spa treatment.
For reservations and information, please contact
Cooking School Coordinator Riki Senn at The Greenbrier:
1 800.228.5049 or 304.536.1110. Fax: 304.536.7893 or contact
The Greenbrier online at www.greenbrier.com/culinary.
The annual Food Writers and Editors Symposium at
The Greenbrier is from March 20-23. For details, check
www.greenbrier.com/foodwriters or contact Lynn Swann at
1.800.624.6070 or at email@example.com.
During the winter/spring season, Anne Willan’s teaching
engagements include Ramekins, Sonoma, CA, November 9; Sur
La Table at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles, November 11;
a series of ten classes at Central Market locations in Houston,
Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas and Plano, TX, February
3-12; Sur La Table, Santa Monica, CA, February 24, 25 and 27
and the Culinary Center, Reno, NV, March 4-5, 2003.
The annual conference of the International Association of
Culinary Professionals will be held in Montreal, Canada
from April 9-13.
FACTS ON FRITES
by Anne Willan
This has been the summer of the frite. La Varenne’s trainees
undertook a serious research study of the frites stands that flourish
briefly on French roads and auto routes each summer. Here are
some of their conclusions:
• A frite bears little relation to a French fry.
• A frite is skinny and never, never includes the potato peel.
• Hand cutting is important so those top and bottom shavings
will ensure the extra crispiness of the frites.
• If the potatoes appear to be reconstituted, drive on.
• A good frite is instantly recognizable by its intense golden color
and military demeanor. Drooping frites are a failure; brown ones
are a signal that the oil is stale.
• It is with regret that the team reports the universal use of
canola oil for frying; the classic beef tallow, fragrant and
full-flavored, seems to have disappeared.
• After consulting chef emeritus Fernand Chambrette, our
culinary sleuths strongly recommend Belle de Fontenay potatoes
as prime choices for frites, followed by Bintjes and Agrias.
• Good frites are always double-fried, first to cook them, then
at a higher temperature to brown and crispen them.
• For maximum crispness, salt should be added at the time of
serving, not before they are cooked.
• Portions are standard (approximately 2 large potatoes); small
or jumbo sizes do not (or should not) exist.
• The range of toppings must include mayonnaise, ketchup and
mustard. The aficionado slathers his frites (presented in a plastic
barquette for easy access) with the chosen sauce and digs in
eagerly before moisture can do its soggy work. The kaleidoscope
of curry mayonnaise, aioli, hot jalapeno and chunky Asian chili
sauces spotted at one enterprise in Belgium are not allowed.
• A serious frite stand sells no other food. Permitted drinks
are beer, Orangina, and bottled water, all of them served at
the time-hallowed tepid temperature.
• Tables and chairs provided by the management are a bad sign.
A well-informed consumer eats frites standing upright, or
at most leaning on a wobbly bar stool.
• A frite stand is not a rest stop. Men, of course, can pull to the
side of the road for a quick pee, but we women have a built-in
disadvantage. Tant pis.
❖ Tish Boil’s new book, The Good Cookie, has just been published
by John Wiley & Sons, New York. ❖ Laura Calder’s first book,
French Food at Home, is scheduled for publication in the spring
of 2003 by William Morrow. Harriet Bell is the editor.
❖ Robert Carmack’s Sydney-based company, Globetrotting
Gourmet, is offering special food tours of Thailand and Vietnam.
He is also conducting a Japanese Soy Sauce tour. ❖ Lin Hansen is
the new Externship Administrator for the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary
Program at Brown College, Mendota Heights, MN. ❖ Tanya Holland
is co-host of the Food Network’s Melting Pot cooking show.
❖ Jessica Leibovich is the chef and owner of Entree Nous —
a private chef and in-home catering business in San Diego. She was
recently named San Diego’s Best Personal Chef by San Diego
Magazine. ❖ Deborah Orrill is the cooking school manager of the
new Central Market in Dallas, Texas. ❖ Cynthia Nims’ new book,
Crab (WestWinds Press, Portland, OR), will be followed by Stone
Fruit, to be released in spring 2003. She also contributed some
Northwest essays and recipes to Savoring America (Williams-
Sonoma). ❖ Caroline Ross is the executive chef of La Bergerie
in Alexandria (Old Town), VA. ❖ Nina Simonds has co-authored a
new children’s book with Leslie Swartz, Moonbeams, Dumplings
and Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday, Tales, Activities
and Recipes (Gulliver Books). ❖ Rochelle Smith-Dorsey is working
on a consulting basis to Chef Charlie Trotter (Chicago, IL, and
London, UK). ❖ Molly Stevens is an editor, along with Fran
McCullough, of The Best American Recipes, 2002 - 2003 (Houghton
Mifflin). ❖ Congratulations to Jonathan Waxman (Washington Park
— New York, NY) and Ana Sortun (Oleana — Cambridge, MA) for
being included in Gourmet Magazine’s Guide to America’s Best
Restaurants (October 2002). ❖
NEXT YEAR IN BURGUNDY
Anne Willan's five-day master classes at Château du Feÿ will run
from June 15-20, June 22-27, June 29 - July 4 and July 6-11,
2003. The program includes two master classes with Anne and
visiting chef demonstrations, lunches or dinners at three
Michelin-starred restaurants, a market visit and wine tour in
Chablis, an expert presentation of local cheeses and a hands-on
session with an artisan baker at the chateau bread oven.
For more information, please contact Janis Mclean at the
La Varenne office in Washington DC. Hurry, half the available
space is already set aside!