NG Intro: My guest today is Jean Denham, D-E-N-H-A-M. Jean lives in Port Angeles, Washington, and prior to that she and her husband owned a farm and vineyard in California. Jean is a chef, caterer, and author of three cookbooks and co-author of another. We’ll be talking about all of them–and Jean’s very unique “Chef’s Journey” today. Welcome Jean, it’s so nice to have you here.
Jean D: Thank you, Nadia. It’s so great to be here, thank you for asking me.
Nadia: Jean, let’s go back to the beginning. I’d love to hear about what was going on in your life prior to embarking on your “Chef’s Journey”. You didn’t go right into the food industry, you raised a family first, is that right?
Jean D: No, I didn’t, I spent years being “Mother Earth” to my family. I wanted our children to experience how everything grew and how we could use it to sustain our family – we raised animals (beef, chickens, ducks, rabbits, pigs-raised pigs for over 20 years), and an occasional gerbil or hamster; along with yearly vegetable gardens and small orchards for our fruit. I spent years working in offices, doing all the mundane jobs required – disliking every minute of those days.
Nadia: Have you always liked to entertain? Do you remember your first dinner party? How did that go, and what did you cook?
Jean D: I grew up included in dinner parties my mother gave; she was a wonderful cook and it was just natural for me to follow in her footsteps. Yes, my first dinner party was from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was a bible for my mother and me when it came out. It was wonderful evening and all turned out well.
Our menu was:
Leek and Potato soup
Chicken Breasts with Mushrooms & Cream
Asparagus (using her unheard of method of peeling the stalks!)
And my first Chocolate Mousse
It was for 3 sets of neighbors, friends we still cook together with (40 years later), when we visit. We belonged to two friends cooking clubs over the years, which was an education in its self. One dinner, we were led in how to make Thai food from a couple just returning from Thailand through the Peace Corps. A remarkable dinner none of us have ever forgotten. I find giving monthly dinner parties allows me to continue testing new recipes, something we are all told never to do for dinner parties – try new dishes. But, I have courageous friends.
Nadia: You decided to go to chef school at a time in life when many of your peers were planning their retirement. Instead, what did you do?
Jean D: I want no regrets when I go through those pearly gates and knew I had to go to culinary school while I was still able. I still have not gone to Bartender schools – it is on my list, also, but other than that, I have fulfilled my dreams, although I know there are more dreams I haven’t dreamed yet.
Nadia: And you didn’t go to chef’s school just for the fun of it, did you? You began a whole new career—more than one actually. Tell us about that.
Jean D: In the beginning, searching for a culinary school to attend, I did think it would be just for fun and learning as much as I was able to, but that changed quickly.
To qualify for the culinary program I wanted (American Culinary Federation, ACF), I needed to be working in the food industry. I didn’t think at that time I could turn my husband’s life upside down with my dreams, so I never considered getting a job in a restaurant. It was about this time that becoming a Personal Chef was just taking off in the U.S., so it was a perfect fit – work during the day and no weekends. My initials are ‘C, J’ and I wanted to work that in to my company name, so I went through this humongous dictionary to find culinary words that started with a ‘C’ and/or a ‘J’ – Somehow, I put together Chef’s Journey and putting an ‘a’ before it put me at the beginning of most lists.
Nadia: Where were some of the places you worked as a chef?
Jean D: While I was in school, I volunteered with every chef associated with the ACF, which was the majority of chefs in the Sacramento area. After using me for free for a year, they found how dedicated I was to this dream and started hiring me to work with them instead of donating my time. I worked mostly with country club chefs and filled in at various restaurants. My highest honor during school was that my chef instructor, Chef Trung Bui, would recommend me to do catering jobs he did not have time or inclination to take on. That was such an opportunity to get my name out. I eventually found my way to the Foresthill Hotel, which is an 1860s hotel located in the foothills of the Sierras as chef. So, in the end my husband’s life was turned upside down, but without too much complaint, as I would call him on weekends when someone didn’t show up for work and he would grab his ‘tool box’ and come up and do prep work with me. He loved it!
Nadia: Then you became involved with fundraising dinners and somehow, out of that came your first book–or should I say, the first cookbook you had a hand in?
Jean D: I was involved in a cooking forum on the internet, chef2chef.com, where a number of us wanted to do something for chef scholarships and once a year we met in Windsor, CO to offer a multi-course dinner and an auction to raise money for the scholarships. Chefs from across the U.S., in addition to Canada and England, got together to plan and cook for this event.
It was on this forum, that someone asked me what I fed my family (they were aware that Roy and I had 8 children between us, so money was tight), when we had no money. As I was offering recipes other joined me with the food they cooked for their families and this morphed into another way to raise money for scholarships and “Share a Recipe” came into being. All the monies raised from this book still go to chef scholarships.
Through our works with Chef2Chef, I personally have given two $1,000.00 scholarships to apprentices in culinary school – one to a student attending the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa, CA and another through the sales of “Share a Recipe” to a student at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nadia: And more recently, you’ve been doing your own cookbooks. Maybe you can tell us a little about each one and where the listeners can get them.
Jean D: When we moved to the Pacific Northwest, I left my support system behind and I was getting too old to start over again. I was lucky enough to cater events (smaller ones) for our two favorite wineries in Port Angeles, Harbinger Winery and Camaraderie Winery to keep my hand in and knife skills up to par. But, that didn’t fill all my time, and decided to put all the dishes I’ve done over the past 50 years to good use.
The second book, “a Chef’s Journey…Home,” is dedicated to the women who raised me and taught me my love of food and cooking. (Both my grandmothers were camp cooks during their early days and my mother was the best non-chef cook I’ve ever known.) The recipes are those we all grew up with loving and again, I called on my fellow chefs and foodies to share with the world their family favorites and everyone came through with wonderful ideas for the book.
I am a complete pizza-nut, so the next book was a given. “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza,” is a little stocking-stuffer sized book with recipes for pizza doughs, sauces and toppings to help take the mystery out of pizza making for the home cook. It also introduces many to the wonderful flavor of grilling pizza.
Second only to eating pizza, I love corn! Along with my affinity for black beans, again, it was a given to bring those two favorite ingredients together in a book. Black Beans & Corn came out in September of this year and I’m so gratified to find how many others like this combination too!
Now, it’s time to move on to the next love of my cooking life – hors d’oeuvres and small plates. Everyone loves appetizers and small plates are the way we are heading in the new eating lifestyle. I think most of us have leaned we just eat too much, and bringing small plates into our habit brings another benefit to our lives ~ we can experience a larger variety of foods. It’s fun to graze our way through ethnic dishes we have access to. So, those two are the next project in the works.
Nadia: Jean, I’ve had such a good time having you here. It’s been great to talk to you today and hear about everything you are doing. Before we go, please give listeners your website or blog, and tell them again where they can get your book, and anything else you think they should know.
Jean D: Thank you Nadia, I’ve enjoyed this too, and my website is www. achefsjourney.com. I offer recipes monthly (at least I try to offer them every month) and anyone who wants to order books through the website by leaving me a message, I will send them out autographed.
My books are available through Amazon.com and bookstores that we visit on our travels, none has turned us down yet. My husband, who handles this side of a Chef’s Journey, and allows me to cook, is working with Barnes & Noble to include my books in their stores. Local bookstores and wineries also carry the books.
Nadia sign-off: Bye everyone, until next time, this is Nadia Giordana, reminding you to “Embody your vision, it’s easier than you THINK!”
To listen to Jean Denham’s BlogTalkRadio broadcast, click here.