Culinary adventure, no passport required
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written by Jessie...
Way back when, in 1981, I was studying to be a dentist at UCSF. Feeling uncertain that dentistry was my life's calling, I took a year off to explore other options. To pay my bills, I found a part time job cooking for a recent widower. I would come once a week, cook all day, sit down and enjoy lunch with him. By the time I left, his refrigerator was filled with food for the week. What a concept... Now this was FUN!
After a few months, I had increased my client list to one household a day and then progressed to three a day. I was finding that as a career, I was a bit lonely, so I investigated cooking schools. I thought I could learn more and also meet other people interested in food, as a profession. I found a perfect match at a small french cooking school, called Le Cordon Rouge. I was able to work during the day, and then go to school from 3 to 10 each evening. I learned so much but I still felt like something was missing. Learning French cuisine in America lacked the true taste of the culture behind the cuisine. For this, there was only one place to go...
Wanting to have the greatest possibility for adventure, I decided to go alone to France. Not having a traveling companion would require me to actually make new friends. Promising my clients to trust I would return, I bought one round-trip ticket to Paris and with a lot of fear and excitement, my journey began. My connection from Le Cordon Rouge had allowed me to arrange with three restaurants in Paris to have access to the kitchen and the opportunity to work for free with the chefs.
Once I arrived, I found that being a woman in a french restaurant in France was not going to be easy. I quickly tired of the constant teasing and decided to try to learn what I had come for by visiting and eating with as many french families as I was lucky enough to be invited to!
What I found was that french housewives were amazing cooks! The simple fact of being raised in a culture that has such an appreciation for the art of cooking and its presentation has taught the home cook to know what most Americans have had to spend years in culinary school to learn. Besides that, the way in which families gather to celebrate is so rich, beautiful and frequent! The rules are few:
It was at one of these parties that I met a handsome and most charming man. We found that we were both passionate about food. Little did we know, that soon we would be passionate for each other.
Speaking very little of each other's languages, our rendezvous were quite funny. On an all-day excursion to Reims (where all the best champagnes are made), I resorted to singing every song I knew by heart, since Laurent's old Peugeot did not have a radio. Another day, we lunched in the Bois de Boulogne, at the famous Le Pré Catelan (where Laurent had done an apprenticeship). I spent my last night in Paris, in Laurent's family's guest room. In the morning, he knocked on my door, came in with enough croissants for six people, carefully placed the tray with hot café au lait next to my bed and left me to enjoy my breakfast. It was not 'til one year later that a postcard arrived... My charming french memory was to come to America.
Laurent had planned to work as a food and beverage manager of a large hotel and needed to speak better English, before taking a job in Japan. He expected to stay with me for two weeks of his six months' visa. Laurent was introduced first-hand to what was then known as Jessie's Culinary Service. He was happy to help with my work and was intrigued by the way I was making delicious meals with so little butter or cream. He had completed the Hotel School of Geneva in Switzerland and had trained under two very famous french chefs.
Accustomed to traditional french cooking, Laurent was fascinated with California cuisine. We were a fun and contrasting combination. Laurent was raised in the center of Paris, while I was raised in a tiny town in Washington State. He had culture and refinement, while I had love for the wilderness and adventure. The steam was starting to rise, both in the kitchen and in our hearts. Two weeks had become six months and with the visa soon expiring... something had to be done.
The telephone rang early on a Saturday morning. Sleepy-eyed, I answered to find my rafting buddy on the line asking me if I was interested in a 28-day private rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado River. Laurent overheard my conversation, explaining how much I would love to have this opportunity, but with my business, it would be impossible for me to go. Laurent then made me a proposition that would ultimately affect the rest of our lives. He suggested that he could stay and cook for my clients, so I could go on the river trip.
We went to the immigration office to do the paperwork for an extension of his visa and then off I went for a month on the Colorado. This was a significant decision.
At the time Laurent still knew very little English and managing my busy schedule would require him to learn very quickly. He would have to read, write and speak without me around to help! For me, it was an opportunity to trust someone with my creation. "Jessie's Culinary Service" was a major part of my identity and I was very protective and possessive of my business. I had also never met anyone who loved me in the way Laurent did. He was not threatened to have his girlfriend go on a wilderness adventure without him. In fact, he made it happen! The confidence and respect we showed each other then, were to become the foundation of our future together. The year was 1986. Wedding bells would be ringing soon.
At the height of our romance, Laurent invited me to meet "the family". We spent the month of August feasting our way through France. Each friend and relative would prepare their specialty and bring out the best wines. When we boarded the plane to return to America, we could not have been any more in love. Little did we know that soon our relationship would be tested...
Going through customs, Laurent was told that his papers were not in order and he would be sent back to France on the next flight. Regardless of his innocence, in that he had applied for an extension of his visa, the information was not in the computer. No entry, no exception. It was a tragedy to us!
I went back to work, and Laurent began hounding the French Consulate, to secure another visa to join me in America. As the months continued, Laurent forgot more and more of his English and my pillow was getting more and more tear-stained. That November, I got a card from Laurent with a proposal of marriage. I had always known that if he ever asked, I would say yes. I got a plane ticket for Paris and for Christmas, Laurent and I went shopping for wedding rings in Place Vendrôme. Finally, in April, Laurent arrived with his fiancé visa in hand and off we went... directly... to the Justice of the Peace, to make sure no one could separate us again.
As a gesture to our future, I changed the name of my business. Our business would now be called, Jessie et Laurent Culinary Service.
Work and play became indistinguishable. Together, we were creating our new life as husband and wife. Always working side by side, we found a kitchen that we shared with other food businesses and this became our base of production. As the business grew, office work was taking more and more time, so Laurent and I made our next monumental decision. He would run the kitchen and I would devote all my time in the office. Loving to cook, this was difficult for me, but soon its benefits were apparent. We each had our own segment of the business in which to flourish, independent of each other, while still sharing the pride of its success.
After five years of marriage, we had learned a lot about love and life, but we were soon to learn even more. Our family became complete in 1993, when our dear son, Henri, was born and happiness was redefined. The next landmark in our business happened in 1997, when we purchased and built our own commercial kitchen. Laurent designed the space, and we now have an amazingly beautiful and efficient kitchen. Over the next few years, our staff would grow to 14 and our delivery area would include nearly all of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The next big change occurred when we moved the office out of our home. With Henri getting older, it was more difficult to explain (and feel good about) why although Mama was home, she was working and could not be disturbed. So finally, after 20 years, our house became completely our home.
We now call our office and commercial kitchen our "country house". Both have been beautifully designed to make us happy to come to work. With the years going by, another wonderful thing happened. Henri, who during high school worked with us on weekends and throughout the summer months made the monumental decision to enroll in the one-year culinary program at the Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy in San Francisco, which he completed in this past year. To gain more business and life experience he is now in New Zealand, studying at Queenstown Resort College, for a 2 year degree in outdoor adventure tourism. We are delighted to imagine that he may perhaps follow in our footsteps and someday take a leadership role in our company, but perhaps another career ignite him. Only time will tell...
We celebrated 30 years of being in business in 2011 and I must say that the business has taken on a deeper meaning to me personally over the years. I have seen it become something that is so much more than I could manage on my own. It has allowed me to develop skills in working with a team, and be part of collaborative efforts. This seems to be a basic fundamental requirement to make the world work, so I am pleased that I am asked to practice it in my work life. Food, too, has continued to take on a refreshed quality. When I travel, I am continually reinspired by the way it brings people together and connects them to each other as well as the earth. When you can taste the sea, smell the earth, and savor warm sunshine in your food, it is impossible not to be healed in some way. One thing that has not ever changed is my joy in bringing families together around the dinner table, which I believe is where we can find sustenance both physically and spiritually.
May you eat well, live well, and be well...