Chef Jean-Pierre, Interview Part 1: "It Doesn't Take a Genius to Put Two Ingredients Together"

Categories: The Verbal Nosh
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I recently took a cooking class at Chef Jean-Pierre's cooking school in Fort Lauderdale. I knew J-P (full name: Jean-Piere Brehier) and I would get along famously when he walked in the room and announced, "The first thing we're going to do is dessert." (Mmm...Kahlua chocolate pudding!)

During the funny and educational session, the chef scolded latecomers by announcing they'd have to do the dishes, joked about French people ("The only thing I miss about France is the herbs"), and messed up a recipe by adding too much chicken stock -- only to add breadcrumbs and parmesan and masterfully turn it into a lesson on how to recover.

(Another Clean Plate Charlie contributor, Nigel Revenge, also took a class; his review is posted separately.)

Several days after the class, I caught up with the friendly foodie in his office. Here's the first part of our Q &A:

How did you get into cooking?
My mom was a cordon bleu chef.  Ever since I was 4 or 5 years old, I would cook with her. I was the youngest one of the first four children, so my brothers and sisters were older and they would go to school and I would stay back and I cook with my mom all the time.  I enjoyed this. I was with her and it was fun and there was love. It was fun and it was easy. 

I've always cooked, my whole life. When I was 12, I worked in a butcher shop. On the holidays from school vacations, I always had a job and it was always a food-related job. Breadmaking, what have you.  Then when I was 14, I went and worked at a 3-star Michelin guide restaurant. I did my apprenticeship. Then I worked in various restaurants because the best way to learn, the old-fashioned way to learn, was to work with different chefs -- six months with one, six months with another. 

People who go to cooking school, they come out and they can't find their way out of the kitchen. An apprenticeship in France is about 10 years. And apprenticeship in the US is about 6 months. When you do an apprenticeship in France, it's a whole different thing.

How did you end up in Fort Lauderdale?

I arrived because I was working on a cruise ship. I was 18-19, it was French at the time, Paque Cruise Line. We stopped in Fort Lauderdale on the way to South America, a six-week cruise. I didn't speak English so I had a tough time. My first jobs were dishwashers, then I worked as a waiter and improved my English. Then I worked my way back into the kitchen and I bought the restaurant when I was 24.

Wow, at 24? The Left Bank was a pretty famous restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, right?

It was different.  Back then, a bank would loan you money... now everything is more complicated because there are so many crooks. It was easy to get a green card, easy to become an American citizen.  Our customers included Jerry Lewis, Burt Reynolds... 

And then when did you start the cooking school?
I opened up the school in '95, we had a room next to the restaurant. We only had a couple dozen students when we started and now we have 17,000 students. [He also runs a company called RezClick.com which provides the computer registration system for cooking schools around the country.]  We're the backend, the online registration. While I can't program it I certainly know what it should do.

I have to say, you seem to have a brilliant business model -- you get all of the joy of cooking, but you only have to deal with one dish each night instead of 50 dishes for 50 different diners, like you would in a restaurant.

Yes, and I eat for lunch what is leftover from the day before! It's like a restaurant in a way. But I removed all the stress, all the difficulty of running a restaurant: everybody comes in at the same time, and everybody eats the same thing.

I sold [the Left Bank] in 1997. I was in the business for 22 years. I only took 60s days off, I worked 7 days a week. I used to tell my staff, "One day when I retire, I'm gonna put up my own restaurant where everybody's gonna eat the same thing, there won't be a menu!" And that's what I've got today. I wasn't thinking of a school, but that's what I did. I created a fun environment.Most of my regulars come from my restaurant. Many of them are still my customers.

I love my life I have a good life now. I don't have any stress at all, I have zero stress. It's the best job I ever had in my life. I don't have any competition. A lot of people have opened and closed. 

A lot of your classes are sold out, and I noticed you have a lot of repeat customers. What is your secret to a successful cooking school?

You've got to entertain. We're not in the teaching business; we're into entertaining. This is why Rachel Ray has the success that she has! And because of that, people say, "If she can do that, I can do that!" Cooking is the easiest hobby in the world to learn. All you have to do is understand the chemistry of the ingredients. Anybody can cook. Not everybody can play basketball or play the piano, but I guarantee you everybody can cook. It's doesn't take a genius to put two ingredients together. That's what it's about. Understanding the ingredient and then extracting the flavor and the texture from that ingredient. 

It's pretty easy to understand. It's really really simple. It's logic. It's not like you have to be talented - unless you want to become a master chef. There are probably 15-20 master chefs in the world who are geniuses. I've been doing it for 40 years, but I can show you how to make a recipe every bit as good as the way I make it. That's the beauty about cooking. Let's face it, going out to eat at restaurants is expensive. If you've got a family of four, you better learn to cook. You'll enjoy it more, you know what you're eating, and it's a lot cheaper.  And it's so easy! Nothing is complicated. A long time ago, you had to make everything from scratch and produce was very very difficult to work with. And today everything is easy to work with. So, learning how to cook is easy -- anybody can do it. 

In the last few years, there's been such explosive growth of food coverage, with the Food Network and celebrity chefs. Do you have any plans to do a show?

No, my latest cookbook has 5 DVDs in it. That's my last television thing. I did the Today show 28 times. I don't do television anymore, I'm done. I leave that up to the Rachel Rays of the world. They're taking it into a totally different dimension.

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