Paris’s Culinary Paradise

"It is the French attitude towards food that helped make French cuisine the best in the world."

Pear tart. (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
Pear tart.
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
According to Anne Willan, my former employer and author of the recently published “One Soufflé at a Time–A Memoir of Food and France” (written with Amy Friedman), it is the French attitude towards food that helped make French cuisine the best in the world.
Willan, who was born in England, is best known for having created a world-famous cooking school in Paris--Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne.  “I wanted to open a school for training professionals,” wrote Willan.  “It had to be in Paris because of that city’s tradition of gastronomy--dazzling food shops and great chefs.”
In France, wrote Willan, “the connoisseur is respected as much as the cook...Unlike America and England in those days [the early 1960s, when Willan first lived in France], children were brought up thinking about what they eat.  From a very early age they were aware of the importance of how something should taste.”  At the home of the French family Willan lived with in Paris, “Even their smallest child, Arnaud, who was four, talked about the food at the table.  That was a revelation to me,” wrote Willan.  “I learned that in France that’s what people did, unlike England, where it was regarded as rather vulgar.”
Our favorite chapter in the book is “Paradise Found,” which brings to life the wonderful period that we spent at La Varenne.  Our days were filled with lessons in preparing such fabulous dishes as gratin dauphinois (potato gratin) made with ladlefuls of thick creme fraiche, the best canard a l’orange (duck with orange sauce) made with classic sauce espagnole, silky creme caramel...Every meal was a feast.
When Yakir and I arrived in Paris from Israel in June, 1976, the school had been open for only a few months.  I had signed up for six weeks of classes; they were expensive but we felt that this was an investment in our future.  The experience of being at La Varenne was so thrilling that I knew I wanted to study there longer.  Anne Willan agreed to let me type recipes in exchange for additional classes.  Thus I was able to go through the full program and earn the Grand Diplome. 
“This was a magical period in Paris for cooking...“ wrote Willan.  “French cuisine was becoming a portal by which Americans were rediscovering the culinary arts after a long dormant period that began in the 1930s with the taming of vegetables in cans... and now La Varenne was... a working laboratory of classical French cuisine.  The stagiaires [people who worked in exchange for classes] were able to plunge into French culture in a way any other kind of visit to Paris would never provide.”
What made every day at La Varenne special was the camaraderie.  We, the students and the stagiaires, were there to enjoy learning, to taste delicious food and to experience Paris.  It was a pleasure to belong to a community of people who were passionate about cuisine. 
The most remarkable chef at the school was Fernand Chambrette.
“It was Chef Fernand Chambrette who changed everything for me...Chambrette’s cooking was a revelation--a combination of instinct and knowledge acquired during fifty years in the kitchen...,” wrote Willan. “Chambrette communed with his ingredients, poking vegetables to test their freshness, looking fish straight in the eye.  He had an extraordinary ability to extract flavor.  Again and again he proved that intelligence and education are as important to cooking as they are to any other art.”
From Chef Chambrette we learned how to prepare wonderful fish dishes like smoked salmon rillettes (see recipe below) and delicious bouillabaisse redolent of saffron and garlic.  For his incomparable cassoulet he cooked the beans separately, and then baked them with meats stewed in fresh tomato sauce so that each element was perfectly cooked.  He made a fabulous Breton pastry called kouign amann from buttery croissant dough layered with sugar and baked as a cake.
Chef Chambrette insisted on buying top quality ingredients for the school at Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food market, but “he was just as happy creating something delicious out of leftovers as he was creating a vegetable terrine layered with veal mousseline,” wrote Willan.  Indeed, the class days I enjoyed the most were Fridays, when the chef would clean out the refrigerator and use every scrap of food to come up with tempting dishes.
I ended up spending almost six years at La Varenne. My job evolved into a cookbook lover’s dream, when I worked with Anne Willan on the La Varenne cookbooks.  The high point was the work on “French Regional Cooking.”  I was in charge of recipe research, which meant that I read old French cookbooks with sketchy recipes and usually no precise quantities, determined which dishes were most important and drafted them for testing.
“We must look at cooking the way the French look at it…,” wrote Willan. “Everything has a structure–the basic sauces, the stocks, the crème pâtissière.  And with technique, you build...Chambrette knew that it was technique far more than individual recipes that matter.” 
Every day when I cook, whether it’s French cuisine or another style, I use the knowledge I gained at La Varenne.  After those years in Paris I never looked at a recipe the same way again. 
Faye Levy’s first cookbook, “The La Varenne Tour Book,” is the first cookbook of La Varenne.  Levy is also the author of the three-volume “Fresh from France” cookbook series.
This recipe from “One Soufflé at a Time” is perfect for New Year’s parties.  Rillettes are a spread traditionally made of meat but Chef Chambrette came up with this delicious way to make them from fish.  Over the years I have lightened the dish slightly by substituting cream cheese for half the butter.  Here is the original way the chef made it. 
Serve the rillettes with crusty bread, toast, or crackers.  To keep the rillettes for a day or two, smooth the surface, seal with melted butter, and refrigerate.  You can garnish the rillettes with chopped chives, capers or wedges of lemon.
Serves 6 as an appetizer
225 grams (1/2 pound) piece of salmon fillet225 grams (1/2 pound) cold-smoked salmon225 grams (1/2 pound or 1 cup) unsalted butterSalt (if necessary) and pepperGrated nutmeg
To poach salmon:1/2 cup dry white wine1/2 cup water
Lay salmon fillet in a frying pan and pour over the white wine and water.  Cover and simmer until salmon just flakes easily, 5 to 7 minutes.  Let cool for a few minutes, then lift out salmon and set it aside.  Add smoked salmon to pan, cover, and cook 1 to 2 minutes, until the slices are no longer transparent.  Leave to cool in the liquid; then drain it and discard liquid.
Finely shred fresh and cooked salmon with two forks, discarding skin and any bones; you may need to trim brown edges from smoked salmon.  Cream butter until very soft and stir in shredded salmon, still using a fork (be sure salmon is cool or it will melt the butter).  The texture of rillettes should be rough and slightly flaky, so do not overstir.  Season rillettes to taste with salt (if necessary), pepper and nutmeg–salt may not be needed, as smoked salmon contains salt.  Pack rillettes in individual ramekins or in a pottery mold and chill thoroughly at least an hour or two before serving with your chosen accompaniments.
“This pear tart has a secret filling,” wrote Anne Willan, “a simple sprinkling of chopped chocolate that dissolves in the juice from the cooked pears to form a creamy sauce.”  For the tart Willan prefers juicy Comice pears or ripe Bartletts.
Serves 6 to 8
110 grams (4 ounces) dark chocolate3 to 4 pears
For the pâte sucrée dough:1 2/3 cups (200 grams or 7 ounces) flour1/2 cup (100 grams or 3 1/2 ounces sugar)4 large egg yolksPinch of salt90 grams (3 1/4 ounces or 6 tablespoons) butter, plus more for the pan
For the topping:2 large eggs1 large egg yolk3/4 cup heavy cream or whipping cream1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract1 tablespoon sugar, for sprinkling
Make pâte sucrée dough: Sift flour onto a work surface and sweep a wide well with your fingertips.  Put sugar, egg yolks and salt in the well.  Pound butter with a rolling pin to soften it, add it to the other ingredients in the well, and work with the fingers of one hand until thoroughly mixed.  Using a pastry scraper, gradually draw in flour from sides of well and continue working with both hands until coarse crumbs form; they should be soft but not sticky.  Gently press crumbs into a ball; dough will be uneven and unblended at this point.  To blend dough, set it on a floured surface and, with the heel of your hand, flatten and push dough away from you.  Gather it up, press it into a rough ball, and flatten it again.  Continue until dough is as pliable as putty and pulls away from the surface in one piece, 1 to 2 minutes.  Shape it into a ball, wrap, and chill it until firm, 15 to 30 minutes.
Butter a 23- to 25-cm (9- to 10-inch) tart pan with a removable base. Roll out dough to a round 5 cm (2 inches) larger than the pan.  Lift dough around rolling pin and lower it into the pan, pressing it into sides of pan and draping edges over rim.  Roll rolling pin over top of pan to cut dough edge neatly, then flute it with your fingers.  Chill tart shell until very firm, about 15 minutes.  Heat oven to 200C (400F) and set a baking sheet low down.
With a large knife, chop chocolate into very small chunks.  Spread chocolate in tart shell.  Peel and halve pears and scoop out cores and fibrous stems using a melon baller or point of a paring knife.  Set pear halves cut side down on a cutting board and cut them very thinly crosswise without separating slices.  Gently flatten slices to make elongated ovals that keep the shape of pear halves.  Still keeping slices together, lift them on the flat of the knife and arrange halves, stem end inward, on chocolate layer in a circle like the petals of a flower. 
To make topping: In a bowl, whisk eggs, egg yolk, cream and vanilla to make a custard.  Spoon it over the pear halves so they are lightly coated.  Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake tart on the hot baking sheet for 10 minutes.  Lower oven heat to 180C (350F) and continue baking until pastry is brown and pears are tender, 25 to 35 minutes longer.