A French chef’s journey from the Loire Valley to Gainesville

By on March 29th, 2013
Chef Michel Maloiseau

Sara Drumm / WUFT News

Chef Michel Maloiseau

Michel Maloiseau has a large, spacious kitchen, free of clutter. Pots hang neatly from his ceiling and everything has its place.

But in an attached room, a table loaded with pots and pans rests in a corner surrounded by newspaper clippings. And tucked to the side of his narrow front doorway are three large storage bins that contain thousands of recipes.

After almost 50 years of culinary work in France, England and the United States, spending many years in urban centers such as Paris, London and Chicago, often serving high-profile celebrities and socialites, Maloiseau has settled into a blue-gray house with a tiny driveway tucked away on a leafy Gainesville street.

His kitchen is open to anyone who wants cooking lessons, but he hasn’t had many requests for lessons recently. He began offering personal lessons when students in his Santa Fe cooking class urged him too. But he stopped teaching at Santa Fe in December 2011, and the customers have slowed.

The chef, who was born in the Loire Valley in France, keeps his skills sharp by cooking for Gainesville groups, including a fundraiser for the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, and cooking fish with his 5-year-old grandson.

After more than 50 years of work, Maloiseau is enjoying the lighter workload.

“I want to control how much I do it,” he said. “I don’t want to be a slave.”

Cooking his way to the U.S.

It started with a chef’s hat.

His mother was a chef and 9-year-old Maloiseau was “impressed” by the toque.

After a three-year apprenticeship as a teenager, Maloiseau went on to serve as an on-plane chef in the French military, making food for leaders, including the first French president, Charles de Gaulle.

That was in the early 1960s. Maloiseau went on to work at Le Bristol Hotel, where his head chef encouraged him to accept a job offer in London.

“The chef is the king,” he said. “What he tells you to do, you do it.”

He also wanted the opportunity to improve his English. So when he received an offer to work at Hugh Hefner’s new Playboy Club Hotel in Wisconsin in the late 1960s, he took that, too. He said he didn’t move to America for any specific reason — but he’ll always remember being picked up in a limo from the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, as well as the many musicians who performed at the hotel.

Maloiseau said he had no idea he would end up staying in the United States, and he did return to France in 1971 to work for a gourmet country inn and restaurant in the Loire Valley. But then he accepted a job as the executive chef at Maxim’s de Paris in Chicago, a job that promised prestige and honor.

It was a prestigious position. But it also consumed his life. He said he had no time for his wife or son, nor did he have time to look for another job so he could quit. He worked six or seven days a week and would often come home and scarf down a hot dog after spending the day preparing fancy meals. His marriage dissolved.

“That was a tough three years,” Maloiseau said. “Since then, I got really negative about the industry.”

He spent the next eight years working for the Four Seasons Hotels, Inc., and the next 13 years hopping from title to title: instructor operator, importer, executive chef, general manager, restaurant consultant, private chef, chef instructor and more.

Renewing culinary passion as a teacher

He finally settled at Kendall College in Chicago, teaching professional cooking skills, methods of cooking, French regional cooking, sauces and other skills to classes of 15-20 students.

“I think teaching was great,” he said.

But it didn’t come to him naturally. Students would ask him about decisions that, by that time, were intuitive, encoded as muscle memory. So Maloiseau found himself hitting the books to learn how to describe cooking in terms that students just starting to learn the skills could understand.

“After teaching, I see a different approach to cooking,” he said.

Nutrition and proper sanitation became areas of focus for him. He saw how reluctant students were to wash their hands and how little they knew about taking care of fresh food, and he became concerned for a generation of chefs. He saw a lack of knowledge about the importance of fresh, raw vegetables and fruit.

Maloiseau's "chef's bible," which he received as part of his training and still uses today.

Sara Drumm / WUFT News

Maloiseau's "chef's bible," which he received as part of his training and still uses today.

Maloiseau has also come to believe that culinary school can be a waste of time and money if students don’t get outside training to complement the schoolwork. He suggests going to school and working under a chef over the summer for experience and networking. Then, spend a full year working under a chef to develop your skills.

He spent three years working learning under a chef for his education. From personal experience, he knows that the new environment can be hard and intimidating, but valuable. If a student is a hard worker, respectful and attentive, he or she will be fine.

“You have to love by heart the business,” he said.

It’s OK to make mistakes, he added – like the time he forgot he had a chicken roasting and took a break. When he got back, he opened the oven and saw what amounted to a piece of charcoal, so he hurriedly hid it at the bottom of a trash can.

“That burnt chicken smells forever,” he said. His chef quickly found his mistake. “But I didn’t die.”

He did have to polish copper for a week as a punishment, though.

A different pace of life in Gainesville

In 2009, Maloiseau moved to Gainesville to be near his son, who moved here with his mother after the divorce. He taught a regional French cooking class at Santa Fe College until December 2011, but he was frustrated with not having a suitable test kitchen to practice in.

Maloiseau doesn’t think an upscale French restaurant would be lucrative in Gainesville, but he wouldn’t mind offering his experience and knowledge as a partner.

One of his favorite jobs, which he held just before moving to Gainesville, was at the Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, La., along the Mississippi River. Maloiseau designed the restaurants, kitchens and menus for the resort, which is a popular wedding destination.

He would love to do something similar again, if not to the same degree.

For now, he is enjoying the time he has to be with his family – or sailing.

“You cannot think about your problems when you sail,” he said.

As for feeding himself, he rarely cooks elaborate meals for dinner, but he always has veggies and a glass of wine – “for the cholesterol, is a good excuse,” he said.

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