A faded black and white picture from Chef Jean-Claude Le Lans early years as a chef depicts a young man cooking under his mentor in La Rochelle, France with eager eyes. Aptly, La Rochelle is known for its seafood, scenery and sailing, as is Le Lans American setting of choice, Alexandria.
Cooking since he was 14, Le Lan traveled to America in the 1980s to see the sights and, while on vacation in Northern California, received a call from his boss asking him to open a restaurant in Oakland for a friend of his apparently no big deal for Le Lan, who quit my vacation and opened up a restaurant in Sacramento like it was a cinch.
It worked, and so did America in Le Lans mind. He went back to France briefly, only to come back and set up shop in the DC area, his still-thick French accent a testament to his roots.
He recently ended about 16 non-consecutive years at Old Towns La Refuge to become a freelance chef, giving cooking lessons to small groups and volunteering his culinary skills at local schools and the Red Cross.
Alexandrians love it, Le Lan said. Im going to France, tasting the wine, tasting the food. People in America are more educated about French food now.
Le Lan may open his own restaurant in September, but until then he is happy with spreading his talents, like opening a champagne bottle with a cleaver in a split second its called la sabrage and can be seen on YouTube and then serving it up fantastically to his cooking clients aft er giving lessons on fi ne French dishes.
Chef Le Lan just recently left La Refuge, where he enjoyed the job and his loyal customers, but left to try something new. He plans to stay around Alexandria, which he said has made him, teaching cooking to his many American protgs.
I love to work in the street, Le Lan said. I talked to a customer at La Refuge that said she was missing me when I was gone, so it made me feel good. I dont go in Georgetown when I go out. I go to Old Town.
I cook for hundreds, so cooking for 10 people is really easy for me. Its lots of fun when you cook in front people because they ask you questions. They say,
This is what Im doing and ask me questions about the best way to do it.
The secret to cooking fine French meals or any meal for that matter is really no secret, Le Lan said: Always use the best to get the best; the best veggies, the best meat, the best fish. I dont go cheap. If you go cheap, its going to taste cheap. His veal stock, for instance, takes eight hours to get right. Some people buy powder, Le Lan said. Its not the same.
For 36 years Le Lan has been behind the stove, whether in France, America or Jamaica where he goes once a year, synchronizing his French and American experience with Jamaican ingredients, even if he is unaware of the fi nal product.
I go to the market, pick up food and I play with food, Le Lan said. Cooks ask me over there, What are you doing? I say that I dont know yet, I have to put it together. And aft er I put it together I say, Th ats what Im doing!
Chef Le Lan has come a long way since he was a 14 year-old working in a La Rochelle kitchen, where he admits making at least one mistake toward the end of lunch service one day when the owner asked him for a salad.
I didnt have any made, so I took the veggies out of the fridge, cut them I didnt wash them and sent it to the [bosss] offi ce, Le Lan said. So two minutes aft er that, I get called over. I was worried. Th e owner asked me, Did you wash the salad?
Le Lan had to clean the kitchen ventilations for a week, taking no breaks. Aft er that day, I cleaned everything I touch, Le Lan said. I learned the hard way.
36 years later, Le Lan teaches cooking, wine pairings and technique so that clients can learn the easy way.