Le Club des Chefs des Chefs wrap up US tour with lunch at L’Academie de Cuisine
“Meals have become the means of government” – Brillat-Savarin
When your job is cooking for a president or a king, your peer group is spread pretty thinly around the world. Who else has coped with the President of Russia’s official taster or has made the president of India’s favorite curry? Who else can you call to get the President of the United States’ favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe? So, in order to open channels between palace kitchens, Gilles Bragard founded the Club des Chefs des Chefs in 1977, as a place where chefs of heads of state around the world come to gather.
Here I am talking w/ Club President, Christian Garcia, Chef of His Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco
Since its founding, members of this elite club take turns hosting the group for one week each summer, showing off the national culinary treasures of the host nation. This year, the Executive Chef of the White House, Cristeta Comerford hosted the group here in the United States, and upon her recommendation, their conference wrapped up with a three-course luncheon presented by the faculty and students of L’Academie de Cuisine. It was a great honor to be the first cooking school ever to host the Club des Chefs des Chefs. Their objective in visiting a small, privately owned cooking school like L’Academie de Cuisine (LADC) was to see—and taste—for themselves the state of professional culinary instruction in the United States.
A wood-fired pizza oven, Fat Frankie’s Pizza, operated by local artisan pizza nomad and LADC graduate, Frank Noto parked in front of the school, and greeted club members with slices of Neapolitan pizza as they disembarked from their charter bus. In a cacophony of languages and broken English, we learned how over the past week the club was treated like royalty at local spots including Union Market, Restaurant Eve and Mini Bar. They were also received as dignitaries by President Obama at the White House and by General Secretary Ban Ki Moon in a special meeting at the United Nations. In a new twist on the annual gathering, the group spent one of their days cooking for 200 of New York’s under privileged community at Xavier Mission, a homeless shelter and food pantry. These chefs to presidents, kings and queens scrubbed dishes, stirred giant pots of curry, and tossed enormous bowls of chopped salad, proving that gourmet food is not just for the privileged; the hungry can appreciate more than mere sustenance. So the annual meeting of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs represents far more than a gustatory retreat for the culinary elite but a chance to reach out to the global community of those in need.
My dear colleague Chef Somchet, White House Executive Chef, Cristeta Comerford and Norbert Kostner, Chef to His Majesty the King of Thailand
In addition to face time and shop talk, these annual meetings foster a sense of duty and stewardship among the members. The club wants to become more involved in local non-profit work like the one in New York, but in cities around the world. “It is gratifying work for the chefs, and our prestige helps bring awareness to the important issue of food aid”, said The President of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs, who is also the Chef of his Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco. “After the success of this experience, we intend to bring the group together more frequently than once a year to participate in these kinds of programs.”
Another stop on their US tour included visiting several Amish Farms in Pennsylvania. On this trip the group was joined by Farmer Lee Jones, owner and founder of Chef’s Garden, a farm in Ohio serving vegetables, microgreens and much more to the most discriminating chefs in the country. But more than just a working farm, The Chef’s Garden, is an oracle of the American renaissance, rediscovering sustainability and quality through heritage best farm practices. “Fine dining does not operate in a vacuum from sensible, sustainable provisions by which all can benefit: the grower, the processor, the chef, and the consumer,” says Farmer Jones. “It is incumbent upon a chef to care about the success of the whole process, from grower to diner.”
Over heirloom tomato gazpacho, duck terrine, and summer greens served in a crown made from a long thin, slice of our house baguette, I discussed the club’s mission with Chef of his Majesty King of Sweden, Magnus Ake Rehback. “As chefs to heads of state, we compare notes on best ways to run a state dinner or how to be sensitive to dignitaries from other countries,” he says, “But the most valuable asset of the meeting is face-time with colleagues.” When asked if the club deploys its notoriety to influence public policy, Chef Magnus explained, “In our daily work, each of us operates with a profound level of discretion and privacy, and so it is difficult to publically champion a cause or a sponsor. When we convene under our club banner we can collectively raise our voice and put our significant influence into action.”
(Top) Chef Patrice introduces culinary students to the Executive Chefs; LADC staff & students pose with Chef Machindra Kasture, Chef to the President of India, and his wife
Ultimately, there is a menu of global causes the club hopes to rally around more publicly during their annual gatherings. Chef Rehback hopes to raise awareness about techniques used to track the origins of foods that are sold commercially. He also dedicates himself to reviving best practices of fisheries and local farming, as well as respect for seasonality. He is impressed with Amish Farm practices that have endured on the fringes of modern American agriculture and thankfully now are being rediscovered. In his own way, he incorporates ingredients into his official menus that he hopes will spark a relevant conversation at the royal table.
While dining on perfectly seasoned halibut (even Bernard Vaussion, Chef of the President of the Republic of France remarked on the precision with which the food was seasoned throughout the menu) the guests discussed both the intricacies of serving a State Dinner as well as rallying around their chosen initiatives. The annual gathering of club members is an important part of drawing public attention to many global initiatives close to the hearts of many of these chefs. This is why UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon addressed the group about the World Central Kitchen as well as his Zero Hunger Challenge and Millennium Development Goals presently before Congress. And they discussed with President Obama (and by default if not personally, the First Lady) issues of combating obesity and the State Department’s Culinary Diplomatic Partnership initiative. Organizers of the club point out that collectively the members do influence public debates about food aid, health, waste, and sustainability, and that momentum within the club is really beginning to build. The club refers to their evolving public service agenda as Diplomacy Through Gastronomy. Individually, the work of each chef is by nature very discrete, but collectively they can draw attention to many global initiatives.
As noted food anthropologist and author of Hunger for Freedom, Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela, Anne Trapido wrote, “In what we choose to eat, we express who we are and where we come from… cross culturally, and food is an invaluable tool for
communicating emotional messages…” Or as famed 18th century French diplomat, Talleyrand famously said, “…the fate of nations has often been sealed at a banquet.”
At LADC we got a taste of more than our usual daunting mission of educating future chefs, and possibly the future chefs of heads of state. We fed and broke bread with those who feed those who make a difference. And therefore, we make a difference. Teaching cooks is not just about putting young people on the line; it’s about moving civilization forward, one cook at a time. What better way to hold a conversation about food than over a great lunch.
As the desserts were being served, the club chefs commented on the competency of the student servers , the quality of the seasoning and preparation of the food, and the overall panache of the event. They all agreed, the state of culinary education is in good hands here at LADC.
As the chefs prepared to depart, dazzled culinary students swarmed the visiting chefs for their autographs, like fans of a rock band. And the chefs ate up the limelight and lauded compliments and words of wisdom to our students. Perhaps that is the very best way this brigade of international chefs can get traction on their collective identity, by winning the hearts and minds of the next generation of professional chefs.