On a recent visit to our once hometown of Winnipeg, I met with a long time friend and reluctant celebrity, chef Luc Jean. I have been traveling what seems like incessantly with my husband and son since we embarked on our life changing adventure across Europe four years ago. And even though we no longer live in Winnipeg, in our hearts, this Canadian prairie city will always be our home.
My visit to Winnipeg was punctuated with great experiences and time spent with friends but my meeting with chef Luc Jean, who graciously agreed to be interviewed for our blog, was memorable, to say the least. Chef Luc Jean did not disappoint. We talked about life, food and travel. His answers were candid. Upon his suggestion we met at a local restaurant The Black Bird Brasserie. As Luc told me, he loves to try local restaurants and our interview provided an opportunity to sample French fare at this newcomer to the Winnipeg food scene.
“. . . I am a glutton at heart.” – Luc Jean
On a cloudy September day, over delicious food in the Winnipeg’s French quarter of Saint-Boniface, we discussed Luc’s career, from its humble beginnings to his current status of emerging celebrity chef. Luc is the star of the Canadian French language cooking show called “La Main à la Pâte”. In the show, chef Luc Jean travels all over Canada, working with Canadian farmers, making world class dishes using local products. Despite his new-found fame, Luc remains down-to-earth and humble.
Q: When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
Luc Jean: I had a paper route when I was 15 years old. One of the stops where I delivered the paper was a French bakery, right around the corner from here. I was always on time and one day, the baker came out and gave me a chocolate croissant to try, a pain au chocolat. I tried it and it was the best thing I had ever had in my life. The baker saw my face and he asked me: “Do you like that?” I told him I loved it and he said to me: “You know, you should become a baker.”
I thought about it and I decided that maybe I should. So I started working in his French bakery part time and learning. The guy ended up taking advantage of me. He made me sign a contract, where he wasn’t paying me. So I basically worked there for a year without getting paid. And he wasn’t showing me the things I wanted to learn, keeping things secret, he’d hide his recipes, he’d only show me little pieces of things. That’s how it all began. So at first I wanted to be a baker and I still really enjoy baking.
Q: What drew you into this field?
Luc Jean: What drew me into this field, well, [it was] the teamwork aspect of it, working with my hands, being able to create something and the fact that I am a glutton at heart.
Listen to Luc answering the question:
Photos: courtesy of Luc Jean
Q: Do you cook at home? Or do you prefer to eat out?
Luc Jean: Well, I cook at home a lot actually, because it’s cheaper and because the meals I make are often better than the food I can get at restaurants. I do enjoy cooking, not only at work but also at home. But the things I cook at home are usually a lot more simple. Not as elaborate. I won’t cook for five hours for myself. I will make things like curries, stews, lasagnas and pastas. Things like that. Once in a while, I will roll some sushi. But I try to keep it simple. Those are the best things: the simple dishes.
Q: What’s your favourite meal of the day? Why?
Luc Jean: My favourite meal of the day … hmmm … I would say they are all my favourite. But you know what, there is something about eating some pancakes with blueberries and whip cream in the morning and some real maple syrup, of course. That is the best. Or some crepes with strawberries – so delicious. I would say, breakfast might possibly be my favourite meal of the day.
Q: What type of cuisine is your favourite? What about it do you like?
Luc Jean: People often ask me this and really I appreciate them all because I have different cravings. Sometimes I’ll want some Indian food, I’ll want a really good curry. Other times, you know, I am just craving some Pad Thai. But one of my favourites, one of the real treats for me, is good Japanese food. Japanese cuisine is delicious, it’s simple, and it celebrates fine products and really clean preparation. You know, it’s fish at its best, at its purest, at its freshest. I love sushi, I love Japanese cuisine, which has really been one of my first loves.
Photos: courtesy of Luc Jean
Q: Which great chefs inspire you?
Luc Jean: I like chefs like David Chang for example, people who have done their own thing or created their own path. All the great chefs have something special about them. I mean, that’s why they’re great. But I like David Chang, because he did things that people told him he couldn’t do.
David Chang broke traditions. He cooked outside of his ethnicity. He made Japanese ramen when he was Korean and people told him he couldn’t do that. And he mixed things up. Essentially, he really opened a lot of doors for other people that wanted to do things like that. And I appreciate that because so many times, you know, it’s kind of cliquey in the chef world and people tend to follow trends. I like people who are trend setters and who like to beat to their own drum.
Q: What is the most indispensable tool in your kitchen, one you cannot live without?
Luc Jean: I have to say that would have to be a paring knife, the little one. Because you can do almost anything with that. You can peel vegetables, you can cut vegetables. That’s one of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen. If you don’t have this knife you’re in trouble.
Q: If you could cook one meal with a world famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Luc Jean: One great chef, dead or alive, hmmm … Well, you know, I would prefer, quite frankly, to cook with an amazing Italian nonna. I would love to see how she makes a real classic dish, like fresh pasta. Or I would love to learn the best biriyani in the world from an Indian grandmother. For me that’s the best thing in the world. I would love to experience that.
Some of the best cooks in the world, they’re not chefs. Chefs are people who manage restaurants. But you have these real people who are incredibly talented. You know, they cook for their families, they make different cultural foods their entire lives. Cooking with someone like that, that would be an excellent experience for me. I would really enjoy that.
Q: You have become kind of a celebrity chef in Canada. Tell us about the TV show you’re starring in. Did you ever think your career would steer you towards a leading role in a cooking show?
Luc Jean: I don’t really see myself as a celebrity chef yet. Not that many people know me. I am on a French language TV network here in Canada. It is televised nationally. We only made one season so far. We are working on a second and we are hoping to get more viewers. Really it’s not the celebrity status that attracts me. It’s the opportunity to do the show and to do what I love. And I am having a great time doing it.
Right now I get to travel all over the country and essentially meet these amazing food producers. They are all French Canadian. They are the salt of the earth, such amazing people. And I get to work with them in the field and then I get to cook. So it’s the real farm to fork. As a chef, or as someone who is passionate about food, this is the ultimate experience. I would say, being part of this television show has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career to date. I am enjoying it tremendously.
Photos: courtesy of Luc Jean
Q: Besides the TV show, what other projects are you working on currently?
Luc Jean: I work on multiple things besides the TV show. I do work with some non-profit organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and we raise money every year for inner city projects, for the youth of the inner city, something that is really close to my heart. Besides that, I am part of a catering business . We’re growing it. On average, we have about two events a day. So that’s going really well.
Photos: courtesy of Luc Jean
Q: Being a chef has taken you around the world. Which countries have you worked in besides Canada? Which ones did you enjoy the most and why?
Luc Jean: One of the fantastic things about this career is that I have been able to travel all over the world. Some of the places I’ve been to are London, England, where I worked. I have also worked in France and in Sweden, as well as in Australia. I have to say that Australia has been the nicest place I’ve ever worked at. It’s beautiful there. It’s tropical and there is no harsh winter which is nice. I enjoyed everything there.
But I also really enjoyed the Basque Country and the south of France. The produce there is amazing. And the culture is amazing as well. London was great in terms of restaurants but I am not really a big city guy. But Australia has definitely been the most amazing place I have ever worked at. I am lucky to have traveled so much. It’s a little harder to do so now that I have kids, but I am still doing it. And I look forward to more travels in the future.
Q: All this travel and yet you are back in Winnipeg, arguably the most underrated city in Canada. What drew you back to your hometown?
Luc Jean: Winnipeg is where I grew up, it’s always going to be close to my heart, it’s where my family is. Also, Winnipeg is an amazing city. First of all, it’s one of the more affordable Canadian cities to live in. There are some world class restaurants in Winnipeg. The people are very friendly. I mean, look at our licence plates, they all say “Friendly Manitoba”. And that’s no coincidence. The people here are really great. And I know the community here. I really enjoy it. It’s the right size of city for me. I don’t like living in a city where there’s millions of people. I feel that just under a million, like Winnipeg, is the right size for me. You know, it’s big enough that there are a lot of things to do. But it’s small enough that you don’t feel like an ant.
Q: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Luc Jean: That’s a tough one. When I was living in Australia, I discovered that living by the water was something amazing. But also I have an affinity for mountains. In fact, a few times in my life, I came very close to moving somewhere near mountains, be it Calgary or Banff. Many times I came close, because I love mountains so much. First of all, I love all winter activities, like skiing. I love the landscape, the idea of living in the mountains. So if I could be living anywhere, I could be moving somewhere where there are mountains some day.
Q: Seems like you have worked in every facet of the restaurant industry, including inspiring and teaching young chefs in Winnipeg. You’ve run kitchens in impressive restaurants around the world, you are the star of a cooking show on Canadian TV. Seems like you’ve done it all. So what does the future hold for chef Luc Jean?
Luc Jean: Yes, I have worked in a lot of different facets. I’ve been a culinary instructor. I’ve worked in small mom-and-pop restaurants. I’ve worked in major hotels that had multiple restaurants on the premises. Now I am doing a lot of catering, the TV show and some consulting. You know, the thing now, I think, more and more, in every field really, not just for chefs, is that you have to diversify. And I found success diversifying. Now we’re building a commissary kitchen that feeds a lot of restaurants and we’re doing a lot of catering and events.
I am still involved with many restaurants but I am not the chef at those restaurants. It’s a natural progression. Once you become established in the restaurant business and you have enough knowledge and you’re able to diversify that way and help the industry in different aspects. Being a chef, doesn’t mean you’re just a restaurant chef. You could be doing catering, consulting, you could be on a TV show. I have really diversified in my field and that is the way I like it. I am finding that by doing so, I can do more things and I can balance my life a little bit better.
Q: You’re kind of celebrity around town. Do people ever stop you on the street because they’ve seen you on TV?
Luc Jean: OK, Bea, thanks for making me feel like a celebrity. I am not a celebrity. There are plenty of people who don’t know who I am. But it has happened a few times where people have stopped me and said: “Hey, I saw the show and I really enjoyed it”. It’s always nice to talk to someone about the show. People seem to really like it. And, yes, it has happened a few times but I am not a celebrity.
Q: Everyone knows chefs work very hard. Do you play as hard as you work? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Luc Jean: I don’t play as hard as I work. You know, there was a point when I was younger that I did. But if I played as hard as I work, I wouldn’t get any work done. Quite frankly, I do like physical activity. I like running, sports, Jiu-Jitsu, although I don’t do it as much as I used to. And a little bit of boxing. I like sports although I am not an avid sports follower. I watch hockey, of course, because I am from Canada, but I would rather play sports. Definitely, I like being active. Of course, I like eating as well, so I do go out to eat a fair bit to check out the competition.
Photos: courtesy of Luc Jean
Q: If you could go back in time and meet young Luc Jean, just starting out in his career, what would you do differently, if anything. What advice would you give to your young self?
Luc Jean: That’s a tough one. You know, I would say to myself, don’t be afraid to try things. Maybe sometimes I’ve been in situations when I waited too long before changing something or I didn’t follow my gut instincts and I stayed. At the same time, there is a certain amount of grit that has made me successful in what I do. But, you know, you have to be willing to take risks. And I have taken some, but maybe I could have taken them earlier on. And I would have done some different things. Basically, I would just say: follow your heart and don’t be afraid to take risks.
Q: Any travel plans soon?
Luc Jean: I do have travel plans coming up soon. I am getting married in Nigeria. I am flying to Lagos in January and we are going to have a traditional Nigerian wedding there. There is going to be a lot of dancing and singing and a lot of eating and it’s going to be an amazing experience.
Q: What is one easy dish everyone should know how to make at home? Can you share with us your recipe?
Luc Jean: One easy dish? I mean, I think everyone should know how to make a lasagna. Because it’s so good and simple to make. I mean, you can make a lasagna and then you can eat it for the whole week. You just need to learn how to make a salad dressing. And then you can have a delicious lasagna and salad all week.
I am very thankful to Luc for his time and he melted my heart with his response to my question about cooking with a world famous chef. If you would like to find out more about this amazing Canadian chef from Manitoba, you can follow him here:
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