Cooking Like a Pro

Our Visit to the Gables’ French Culinary Academy Reveals That Passion is the Key

By Karen Buchsbaum

March 2019

It can be intimidating, walking into a kitchen under the command of a Michelin multi-star French chef. But it was only stressful for the five seconds it took Chef Vincent to enthusiastically welcome me.

Attending sessions at Gastronomicom French Culinary Academy was a real treat – for my eyes, stomach and intellect. Most students at the school are training to be professional chefs, but anyone with a serious passion for cooking and a desire to enhance their skills is encouraged. It was, in fact, a Coral Gables resident attending the school’s campus in southern France who convinced founder/owner Martine Lessault to open a school on LeJeune Road.

Chef Vincent Catala is a stickler for detail, and I was impressed with the constant focus on hygiene, nutrition, organization and the economics of running a kitchen. Even with all the attention to detail, Chef Vincent explained it is emotion and passion that matters most in the kitchen. “If you don’t put love into food, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Prim and Miloa add finishing touches to their dish

Courses are taught in either weekly, monthly or annual sessions, with some future chefs spending another three months on the French campus before undertaking a six-month internship at a restaurant in France. Morning modules are devoted to meal preparation and afternoons to pastries and desserts. While I loved every minute, I must admit I was transfixed by the afternoon work with chocolate. The afternoon students were
a real international crew – all from Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Denmark, with a mix of professional and personal aspirations. Interestingly, the school has also attracted students planning to change careers from fields like teaching and accounting.

Chef Vincent Catala

When I joined Arielle, Prim, Justin, Dave and Amelia for the morning session, the assigned topic was fish. I could never have guessed the outcome would be the most singularly unique and incredible crab cake sandwich imaginable. Chef Vincent makes the course very personal, telling engaging stories – including one about his first encounter with the crab cake recipe, eating it without knowing it contained shell fish to which he is highly allergic. But even after a night in the hospital, he remained so enthused by the taste combinations of the dish that today he is content to watch others do the eating. Gastronomicom uses locally sourced foods from within a 100-mile radius when possible, and Chef Vincent does not believe in waste. He also believes you can transform any leftover ingredients into another delicious dish such as an artistic salad or delicious soup, explaining, “You can make a Michelin star dough from what you were going to trash.”

If you don’t put love into food, it just doesn’t make sense…

Chef Vincent Catala

“Food for me is everything, but not boring,” says Chef Vincent. He encourages all aspiring chefs to think about their first or best memory of food, explaining “you must be able to cook comfort food first.” Bon Appétit.

When he is not teaching at Gastronomicom, Coral Gables resident Chef Vincent offers private chef services on nights and weekends.

A Leap of Faith At Age 58

Martine Lessault started Gastronomicom in France 14 years ago at age 58, with a dream and €2,500. After a career that included managing five-star boutique hotels in Europe, she was well-prepared and the school became a success.

“You have to love people to have a school,” said Lessault. “There is much satisfaction to have been helpful and useful to students. They are my family.” She is still in touch with many former students across the globe; after Hurricane Irma, she received more than 200 messages making sure she was safe.

Food has always been part of her family. She grew up in a cooking-oriented household with a father who was a fish wholesaler in Paris, then began working in the food industry, married a chef, and often had her baby cradle with her in the kitchen. “My sons started their lives with the smell of the kitchen,” she says. Those two men have followed in the family footsteps, one son running the school in France and the other as a pastry chef who teaches master classes internationally.

A bout with cancer convinced Lessault to make some big changes in her life and take things to another level. Now a resident of Coral Gables, she opened the doors of her Coral Gables school in September 2016. Plans are in the works for other locations worldwide.

Martine Lessault