AT first, it might seem out of the ordinary for someone like Anne Willan, an authority on French cuisine, to do a series of picture books called "Look & Cook." But the founder of the famous La Varenne Cooking School (Ecole de La Varenne) in France knows exactly how people learn to cook: first by watching, then doing.
When wordy recipes take too much time and TV cooking shows go too fast, how-to pictures in color are the answer for the cook with no time to go to a cooking school.
Whether it's a French bouillabaisse or an Irish stew, there is a correct - and quicker - way to chop an onion or peel a spud. And doing it "the right way" is one of Ms. Willan's mottoes.
Each book is a photographic cooking course, tailored for people who want to find their way back into the kitchen. Called "LOOK & COOK" they include step-by-step color pictures of dishes ranging from classic to contemporary. Every piece of equipment, every ingredient, each stage of preparation of each recipe is pictured in color. It's like cooking with a professional chef beside you.
With 400 illustrations for 50 recipes, you can figure easily that many steps are pictured. Three cookbooks start off the series: Chicken Classics, Perfect Pasta, and Chocolate Desserts. Publication is set for May (Dorling Kindersley Inc., New York and London, $19.95, hard cover).
Three more books in the series will be out in the fall (Main-Dish Vegetables, Meat Classics, Fruit Desserts) and three more the following spring (Appetizers, Fish Classics, Italian Cooking).
Recipes are easy to prepare and call for ingredients readily available in supermarkets. If you haven't had time for a cooking class, these books will give you clear guidelines of how to do things like slice julienne and chop an onion.
Having written more than a dozen cookbooks, including the prize-winning "French Regional Cooking," Willan is no stranger to writing for the home chef or the professional.
But she is best known for establishing the La Varenne school in Paris in 1975, naming it after Francois Pierre de la Varenne, "the most important French chef of the l7th century," Willan said in an interview earlier this month.
I caught up with her on her last teaching day of the six-week program of classes she had been conducting at the Greenbrier resort here in White Sulphur Springs. She addressed more than 80 food writers gathered for the National Broiler Council's "Chicken Tradition's Seminar" that day and talked about one of her trio of cookbooks - the one devoted solely to chicken.
"Practically every country in the world has a favorite chicken dish," Ms. Willan said. Her selection of recipes for the new series combines traditional cooking styles and ingredients with the wide variety of chicken cuts available.
There are recipes for Moroccan Chicken with Eggplant, Indonesian Chicken Kebabs, Vietnamese Chicken, Hungarian Chicken with Paprika, Tex-Mex Chicken Salad, French chicken recipes, and more.
By following the recipes pictured, the cook learns techniques for each particular recipe and also variations using the same method.
For example, following the directions for Saute of Chicken with Paprika, you will learn the basic saute technique for making Szechuan Pepper Chicken and Saute of Chicken with Flageolet Beans and Cream Sauce. You can learn the recipe for Chicken En Cocotte with Lemon and Parmesan and then use the same methods for Chicken with Thyme.
How-to photographs enlighten the reader as to the correct way to chop herbs, for example, or make chicken stock in 15 minutes preparation time.
The book also includes hints and little essays that round out the emphasis on learning, such as the author's opinions on using butter and salt and her advice for assuring healthful, wholesome, good-tasting chicken dishes.
Willan was born in England and moved to the United States in 1965, after graduating from Cambridge University and training at the Cordon Bleu in London and Paris. She became an American citizen, was associate editor of Gourmet magazine in New York and food editor of the Washington Post, and has written more than a dozen cook books. She started La Varenne school when the family moved to Paris in 1975.
Among her enthusiastic sponsors is Julia Child, who says "Anne Willan is like a window on French cuisine because she's aware of the American student's need to know the state of the art in both classic and contemporary French cooking.
"It's so important for students today to learn the basics of French cooking and to know how to use it in their American kitchens," Ms. Child says.
"Ann Willan is the only person really training students today. We are lucky to have her expertise in French culinary history and her excellent teaching cookbooks," says Child, an American who has translated French cooking for the United States for many years.
As for the types of students attending culinary classes in France today, they are quite different from, say, 20 years ago, says Willan.
"When we first opened, people didn't know how to chop a carrot. It's only recently that everybody feels the need to cook. Now they're asking about great chocolate work, creative cheeses, and more complicated menus."
After our interview and a demonstration of cooking several chicken recipes, Willan left Greenbrier for personal appearances and food lectures in London before returning to France. She divides her time between two homes, one in Washington, D.C.,and the other in France.
The Chateau du Fey in Burgundy, which is her home, is also the location of La Varenne school, moved from Paris in 1991. Here Willan directs and teaches cooking courses and advanced professional chef programs during the summer months.
Willan established La Varenne in Paris to rival the declining Cordon Bleu school, where cooking demonstrations at that time were taught in French only. La Varenne opened with all instruction by French teachers with English translations, as it is today.
"Students live at the chateau while attending classes so they can immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a 100-acre historic French chateau," Willan explains. "Classes are taught by talented French chefs and food specialists - with excursions to markets and shops, a taste of Michelin-starred dining, even hot air ballooning."
Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, are always at the chateau, where the students also live. "The chateau is a pleasant place for learning with gracious living and fine cooking," Willan says, "but there is hands-on cooking, often with a long 8-or 10-hour day of work for those in the intensive professional program.
"I believe firmly that for the total novice, there's absolutely no substitute for learning to cook hands-on and in France with French teachers," Willan explains.
"There's nothing like the smells of the kitchen and the "immediacy" of pots boiling on the stove and dishes coming out of the oven for a wonderful meal or dinner at our classes in Le Fey.
"Learning from a cookbook is not the same, of course, and that's why we've included enough color pictures that you can look as you are cooking."
One might say it's the next best thing to being there.