For the 2017 Holiday Winter Edition, we interviewed Martine Lessault, founder of the international culinary school Gastronomicom. With a team of chefs and judges, Ms. Lessault organized the first edition of the Cooking Contest, as part of the annual French Weeks. She agreed to welcome us in her school, letting us in on her rich experience in both the hospitality and culinary education industries. Read on to find out more.
Can you tell us a bit about your professional background?
I was trained at the Ecole Hôtelière of Lausanne, at the age of 19. After completing my first internship in a hotel in Munich, I was offered a managing position by the owner who was opening a French hotel. A few years later, I purchased a hotel-restaurant with my husband, which we ran for 12 years. My next challenge was a position as a catering manager in a palace in Geneva. I remained there for five years, until I decided that it was time to move on. I relocated to Paris, where I managed a 4-star hotel at St Germain des Pres. Three years later, I was moving to Lisbon, where a friend asked me to take over the management of a beautiful 5-star hotel. I then returned to France, in Avignon, where I ran the Hotel d’ Europe for two years, before applying to L’Institut Vatel in Nimes. I oversaw hotel management for two years at the Institute, but requested a transfer over to the school. That’s where I discovered a new passion: education. I remained in that position for ten years, before opening my own school, Gastronomicom.
How did you decide to open Gastronomicom in Miami?
It was purely random! An American student came to my school in France to do a 3 months program. We became good friends, and she convinced me to open a school here. That's how I arrived in Miami, at 68 years old.
Why a boutique-school?
We have a very varied student base, and we want to be able to accompany all of them towards their respective goals. We do not have more than 12 students per class. The small ratio of student to teacher makes it possible to remain flexible, while attaining a high level of personalization in our teaching methods. The chefs can adjust their teaching from one student to another, depending on skill. With a larger number of students, this would not be possible.
Can you tell us a bit about the structure the programs offered at Gastronomicom?
We have two chefs: a pastry chef and a cook. There is a different theme each week; for example, in pastry, one week focuses on chocolate recipes, another on plated desserts etc.… Students can take all courses, or just choose a theme that they’re particularly interested in. The level of difficulty increases each month. I took a certain amount time to design this flexible formula that allows us to integrate all types of students, at any given point in time.restaurant. They will be trained on various skills required to succeed in the restauration industry including setting prices, evaluating food costs, creating a business plan etc.…
What is your teaching philosophy?
Providing high quality services, with a family spirit. I have always worked in luxury Hospitality, where I have been accustomed to the best. By experience, I receive personal gratification from providing excellence. We can be rigorous, professional, and friendly at the same time. The same goes for my philosophy of food. I believe in high quality recipes that enhance products taste. It's not always easy to find excellent products here, but it is possible! I believe in light, healthy and preferably untreated products in our kitchens.
Many French entrepreneurs choose Miami to open their restaurants. Do you think that French food is particularly popular here?
Americans enjoy French cuisine. It doesn’t mean that they eat it every day, but they’re able to differentiate between very good French cuisine, and just decent French cuisine. Again, it is important to respect local tastes, and adapt recipes. I believe that in Miami, restaurants must offer simple and good cuisine within reasonable costs if they want to be successful.
The success of a restaurant also depends on how well its formula is adapted to its specific location within Miami. For example, if surrounded by office buildings, it makes sense to offer quick lunches that aren’t too expensive. However, this wouldn’t necessarily be applicable if established in a residential neighborhood.
What are three pieces of advice that you would give to entrepreneurs in Florida?
First, it is important to plan for at least three years without making profits. It takes time to see the returns of your investment. Secondly, always request at least three or four invoices for any service that you need. It's astonishing how much prices vary, for the exact same services! Finally, it is imperative for entrepreneurs to adapt themselves to the Floridian market. You cannot impose your methods without making changes to what you offer. It is possible to retain your personal touch while adapting to the culture here. For example, we make dishes with plantain at Gastronomicom, which you would not typically find in French recipes.
How was the idea of a cooking contest during the French Weeks born, and who were the participants?
A cooking contest is a way for contestants to improve their culinary skills through competition, while simultaneously developing the image of the gastronomic trade.The candidates were amateurs. Some were participants enrolled in other culinary schools, while others just enjoyed cooking as a hobby. As for the judges, we had a perfect mix of professional chefs and amateurs. We need both to balance the judging.
What are your future plans for Gastronomicom?
I am planning to open branches of Gastronomicom in other countries. I will control quality, and ensure that everything functions to our rigorous standards. I am interested in locations such as Singapore, because it’s big on luxury, quality, and hygiene. The same goes for Switzerland, where I will eventually consider opening a Gastronomicom.