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Her movable feast hits L.A.

A culinary aristocrat arrives from Burgundy, recipes and all.

February 13, 2008|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

ANNE WILLAN is shopping at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market when out of the blue an attractive young woman comes up to introduce herself. "I met you at a Les Dames [d'Escoffier] dinner," she says earnestly. "I just wanted to say how glad I am that you joined our market."

Willan, perfectly coiffed and slightly regal in a well-tailored wool suit even at this early hour, thanks her politely, then, after the woman has walked away, turns and asks with a slightly quizzical look: "That was nice, wasn't it?"

If she seems a little taken aback, it's certainly not because of being recognized -- Willan has been a guiding force in the cooking world for decades -- rather, it is probably the very Californian form the greeting took.

Willan has made her home in Los Angeles just since Christmas, and you get the sense that after 25 years of living in a chateau in the French countryside, this very proper Englishwoman may still be feeling a bit like a duck out of water in Southern California.

Though she may not have the instant name recognition of a Rachael Ray or Mario Batali, Willan's influence on the food world has been profound. Her La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy has long been regarded as one of the finest in the world. She has a Lifetime Achievement award from the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals, is a Grande Dame of Les Dames d'Escoffier International and has been named to the Australian World Food Media Awards Hall of Fame.

She's written at least a couple dozen well-received cookbooks (even she doesn't know the exact number), including two that have become culinary bibles: "La Varenne Pratique" and "French Regional Cooking." Willan's books have been published in 24 countries and translated into 18 languages. Her most recent, "The Country Cooking of France," came out in September.

Storybook heroine

BUT last fall, Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, in the wake of health problems he suffered, decided to leave the French countryside and join their daughter Emma Cherniavsky and her husband, Todd Schulkin, here.

Many people go through a downsizing at a certain point in their lives, but few do it quite as dramatically as Willan has. In December, she and Cherniavsky packed up their 18-bedroom, 17th century chateau in Burgundy and moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Marina del Rey.

Granted, that's only temporary quarters until they have finished remodeling their new home, a very nice Leave-It-to-Beaver-ish two-story in Santa Monica, but . . . well, their last home was the Chateau du Fey.

It's the latest chapter in a life that reads like something out of fiction. In fact, it's easy to see Willan as a Jane Austen character grown up. She's attractive, but not in a shiny way; she's smart, and she's strong of character.

She has a story worthy of an Austen heroine as well. A daughter of privilege, Willan turned her back on the comfortable life planned for her to follow her heart (both personally and professionally) and wound up not only living at Versailles, but also owning her own chateau in France.

Indeed, even a writer as spirited as Austen might have had trouble inventing this story. Raised in a wealthy family in Yorkshire, she graduated from Cambridge in 1959 with a master's degree in economics. She still speaks in a polished English accent that lends everything she says a note of gravitas (and that makes her dry sense of humor crackle once you've caught on).

Encouraged by an early employer while teaching at a finishing school, she took classes at London's famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. "That changed everything," Willan says. "Once I did that, I never wanted to do anything else. When I found cooking, it was decided for me. I just had to do it."

With her parents' begrudging support after graduating from that school she went to Paris to finish her studies, earning the coveted Grand Diplome in 1963.

On a small inheritance, she moved into an even smaller apartment and put an ad in the International Herald Tribune: "Cordon Bleu cook will give lessons and cook for dinner parties." There were six replies, she recalls, including "one from a gentleman who wanted me to cook 'intimate dinner parties' in his suite." She chuckles at the memory.

Versailles attic

ATTRACTIVE as that offer might have been, there was another even better. It came scrawled on heavily embossed stationery from the Chateau de Versailles. Willan remembers that it said, "I have Mexican cooks. I am starting to entertain at the Chateau de Versailles so I want my cooks to learn French cooking. Please come to see me."

The note was from the American-born philanthropist and socialite Florence van der Kemp, who had recently married her third husband, the curator of Versailles (not satisfied with restoring that palace, the couple later went on to fix up Monet's gardens at Giverny).

Willan started out by giving twice-a-week cooking classes and wound up living at Versailles, albeit in an attic over the servants' quarters.

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