Food: In Willan's hands, the devils work: It's obvious why Anne Willan's new 24-volume cookery series promises to be a big hit, says Joanna Blythman
But apart from bulk, what sets it apart from the books and magazines already piled on our shelves and coffee tables? One difference is that it promises to do something to resolve the paradox that, despite all these publications and the television programmes offering everything from competitive amateur cooks to chefs and gurus of various national cuisines, butchers complain their customers do not know where to begin with a joint of meat, fishmongers say that people are scared of cooking whole fish and sales of convenience foods and ready meals have never been higher. The other difference is that Look and Cook is the latest project - and the most ambitious to date - of Anne Willan.
Best known in Britain as the founder of La Varenne Cook School, and author of a stream of cookery titles that are varied but always reliable and educational, Anne Willan is one of the few contemporary cookery figures who has built up a following on both sides of the Atlantic. Curiously for a Yorkshire woman, she is more of a name in the United States than on her home ground, an irony that Look and Cook will almost certainly eliminate.
The thinking behind this latest series is simple. 'It seemed to me it was high time that there was a new and comprehensive visual cook book series - there had been nothing since The Good Cook by Time-Life and Richard Olney,' says Ms Willan.
'My last great labour of love was La Varenne Pratique (published in Britain as the Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Cookery). I sat at a computer for 18 months and wrote down absolutely everything I knew and had learnt about food - but there were hardly any recipes. That's because it was conceived as a preliminary to actual cooking.
'I then saw a series which was a logical extension of that, going through the techniques first - how to bone a chicken, for example - then giving recipes later. It was my publisher, Peter Kindersley, who took the idea further. He said every recipe must be complete in itself and must not assume any prior cooking experience. You should be able to start at the beginning, follow it through and make the dish succesfully, without having to turn to other sections. That way, you could dip into the book at any point, starting at whichever recipe you wanted.'
It is the 'video on the page' approach that makes Look and Cook a modern landmark. In the US, the initial three volumes were into second editions before the first editions had hit the shelves. The popularity is built on three elements. First, thoroughness and literal-mindedness: every stage of each recipe is photographed in close-up. Second, you see a picture of all the ingredients required and are given notes on any obscure ones. Third, every piece of kitchen equipment you might need is shown.
It does seem comical to start recipes with a photograph of a wooden spoon and a lemon, and the repeated appearance of the chopping board can be irritating for the seasoned cook; but it means that at a glance you can see exactly what is involved in the dish, whether it is straightforward or complex, whether it will mean a lot of shopping or you already have most things in the house.
The market the book is addressing is incredibly wide. There are the nervous novice cooks, who want to start real cooking because they are sick of what Anne Willan calls 'convenience food that all tastes the same'. Then there are others, who have become stale with a set repertoire but who might feel galvanised by the immediacy of the approach and seeing what is involved so clearly depicted. Another more surprising constituency is chefs. 'They say they find it really interesting to see the way the finished dish ought to be. That underlines the fact that a lot of professional cooks have no proper training,' she says.
But anyone who thinks that Look and Cook is back to basics would be wrong. Potential Look and Cook customers may not be able to fillet a fish, but they are likely to have quite sophisticated expectations of food. The selection of the recipes for the book is therefore crucial to its success, and the subject of lengthy debate and negotiation: steak-and-kidney pudding is 'kinda neat' in the States, but to British audiences it is a turn off.
'It is difficult to get the outline right. We look for hardcore favourites which we hope are not over-familiar, such as roast chicken. But we give it a twist and call it Chicken Chateau du Fey. Then we need dishes that are something for people to aim towards, to dream about in bed. It also has to be contemporary but not too fashionable,' Ms Willan says.
The latest faxed debate between British editors and their American counterparts is about mascarpone cheese and the Italian dessert tiramisu. The Americans say mascarpone is not widely available there so a substitute must be given. London, and Anne Willan, are insisting there is no substitute. This is just one of a constant number of ingredient and approach problems that are caused by having to please both British and American audiences.
The centre of all this activity is the stunning 17th-century Chateau du Fey, in Burgundy, which Ms Willan and her husband, the economist Mark Cherniavsky, bought more than a decade ago. Then it was just a family home (Anne Willan is a naturalised American, with two children, who loves living in France); but last year she transferred her La Varenne Cook School from its old base in Paris's seventh arrondissement to the chateau. One wing is given over to classes, where Ms Willan's experienced chefs give a range of cookery courses for a well-heeled, international clientele. Another part contains the kitchens and the bevy of American home economists and editors who test out the recipes. As a result, the Chateau du Fey is permanently filled with tantalising cooking smells.
When you see the staff at the chateau in action, you realise Look and Cook is just one product of the Anne Willan stable. In October, she will publish another book, Chateau Cuisine - a sort of French National Trust cook book. Were it not that everything she produces is so consistently dependable, polished and of such high quality, one might be tempted to call it an industry.
Her sustained success as a genuinely international cookery figure is a constant source of surprise to her. She was a Cambridge economics graduate, and then gave up the academic path (much to her father's chagrin) in favour of an English ladies' finishing school - for the bizarre reason that she liked making curtains. At the finishing school, she became enthusiastic about cooking, which led to a Cordon Bleu Grande Diplome course and on to a career in food journalism and cookery writing.
'I never remotely foresaw any of this,' she says. 'I always thought I'd stay in Yorkshire and have 10 children.'
The Look and Cook series is published by Dorling Kindersley, pounds 10.99 a volume. The next three will appear in October, as will Chateau Cuisine, published by Conran/Octopus, pounds 20.
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