Always eager to explore the depths of Jules’ talent pool, we caught up with Jean-Claude Banderier, an expert and influential presence in Jules’ kitchen for nearly eight years, and a chef for nearly 50. Because Jean-Claude has cooked in fine restaurants and hotels in Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Portugal, Spain, New York City, and downtown Boston–all this prior to his settling in at Jules’ Somerville kitchen in 2005–his professional history could fill a book. Today, we focus only on his early days in France–and then fast-forward to his work at Jules.
Fill us in on your gastronomical heritage, your culinary influences, your life in France.
French country cooking
“I was born on my paternal grandfather’s farm in Capdenac-Gare, in l’Aveyron, which lies in a very nice region of south-central France known as the Midi-Pyrénées. My grandfather grew vegetables, had a winery, produced walnut oil…and he raised and sold many pigs. I lived on his farm until I was four, at which point my family moved north to the city of Vierzon, in the center of France, where I started school. But every summer when I was young I would return to my grandparents’ farm with my brothers and sister.”
“My grandfather didn’t grow walnuts, but purchased them in order to produce the delicately flavored oil that is so good on a simple salad. I remember the two ladies at work with their very little, very flexible hammers. They would pound away at the walnuts to break them apart and separate the meat of the nut from the shells. I was very young at the time, and these women with their little hammers made a strong impression!”
Tell us about “the farmer’s wife,” your paternal grandmother, and what we imagine must have been a farm-based cuisine.
“My grandmother was always cooking! She made soup every day. Country soup with vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onion, cabbage, and–for added flavor–jambonneau, which is pork knuckle. La potée is what the soup is called.”
“Every day we had homemade bread–pain de campagne, also called pain de miche. It was a big round of bread, something like an American sourdough. My grandmother would keep the bread in a special bag in the cellar, slice off pieces as needed, and when we had eaten it all she’d bake a new round.”
Tell us about the pigs. Was pork a big part of your diet?
“My grandfather sold the pigs alive, but killed one each year for the family. In a way, he had his own charcuterie. He made petit salé, which is salted pork, as well as an excellent boudin blanc (white sausage), boudin noir (blood sausage). A very special treat was boudin noir aux pommes (blood sausage with apples).”
“L’Aveyron is also known for its duck foie gras and its pâté de foie gras–and also for its cèpes (wild mushrooms; porcini, in Italian).”
It all sounds so lovely.
“I’m telling you…this was the 1950s…I grew up with no chemicals…everything we ate was fresh. We had red wine, white wine, water. That was it, except for the fresh milk from cows and juice from fresh oranges. There was no Coca Cola! Nothing like that. It was really nice country living. I miss all that.”
Apprenticeship in town
“I was too young then…always running and playing outdoors. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I began to pay attention to food preparation. This was after the family moved to my mother’s hometown of Vierzon, near Orléans, in the region known as le Berry.”
“My mother, an excellent cook, prepared healthful, delicious meals every day. Occasionally, she would ask me to help a little bit, but mostly I began to learn by watching her work. I was very observant. I was quick!”
Living in town, you must have missed the fresh produce.
“Not at all! We had a garden by the house and my father grew many kinds of vegetables. Thursdays, when there was no school (back then kids went to school on Saturdays, instead), we children were each assigned a particular task in the garden.”
“When summer came to an end my mother would preserve the vegetables in sterilized glass jars, so that we were able to enjoy our home-grown vegetables throughout the year. My father also had ten Anjou pear trees, and my mother would poach the pears in white wine and sugar. Pears are a noble fruit, and poached pear with crème anglaise or vanilla ice cream is still one of my favorite desserts.”
Did your grandmother and your mother inspire you to become a chef?
“In a way, my father made that decision for me. School was easy for me, but maybe because I was small for my age and felt the need to defend myself, I was always getting into fights. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was definitely a problem. So when I was 15, after my father received a call from my teacher, he challenged me: ‘Do you want to go to school?’ I told him I didn’t.”
“‘Are you sure?… Are you sure?’ he said. And when I insisted that I’d had enough of school, he said, ‘Then you must work! You must have a profession!’ And he arranged for me to start an apprenticeship at a restaurant in Vierzon. This was a one-star (“very good in its category“) country-style place that offered excellent training. I lived over the restaurant and worked very hard, and I only went home on weekends. I wanted to prove myself to my father.”
At the restaurant did you use the same fresh ingredients your family used at home?
“We never used canned goods! In fact, the first time I opened a can was a couple of years later, after I moved to Paris.”
Professional chef in Paris
“When I was 17 I responded to a classified ad in the newspaper, sent a resume, and was hired for a job in Paris at a place called le Bistro in the 2nd arrondissement, a nice neighborhood. They served the classic dishes–coq au vin, boeuf bourguingnon, and pan-seared whole sole, which we would fillet on a guéridon, a narrow table-trolley with a burner. Everything was service à la française, which means the food was presented on big platters, all at once and to great effect, and then carefully arranged on individual plates. It was a pretty fancy place.”
“Again, I was still a teenager, and the people at the top were in their 40s…their 50s. They were very demanding. You do it right, or else! You don’t talk (you definitely don’t talk back). There was no radio in the kitchen. You just work. You buy your own jacket, your own knife. (Nobody touches your knife!) Anyway, I followed the rules, worked very hard, and learned fast. At age 23 I was sous chef; at 24 I was chef.”
Butcher at Les Halles
“Compulsory military service interrupted my culinary activities for a couple of years, but while still in my twenties I also worked part-time at Les Halles, the great, historic marketplace in Paris that has since moved to Rungis, the international marketplace in the outskirts of the city.”
Oh, we know about Les Halles! We just read Mark Kurlansky‘s English translation of Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris (in French, as you know, Le Ventre de Paris), which is all about Les Halles in the late 1850s. If you haven’t read this novel, you really should because Zola’s “food writing” is over the top! But I digress…. Please, tell us about your experiences at Les Halles.
“Because of my background on my grandfather’s farm and also in the restaurant in Vierzon, which had a charcuterie, and also my experiences at Le Bistro in Paris, I worked for a while as a butcher. I prepared cuts of pork. Back then a pig would be delivered to the market cut in half, which is not like today, where meat is ready to go. Nothing was mechanized. Everything was done by hand. It was difficult work, but valuable because butchering is a very important skill for a chef to have.”
We know you have worked as a chef in fine restaurants and hotels around the world–but let’s jump ahead to 2005, when you joined the team at Jules.
A taste of France at Jules
One thing we’re wondering: Do Jules’ clients get “a taste of France” when they enjoy the food you prepare?
“Yes, I think they do–especially when our customers call upon us to prepare such dishes as coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon and–as you saw just the other day–quiche.”
“Another role I play at Jules is ‘quality control.’ Anita [Baglaneas] is all about quality–and consistency— so if something is not prepared just right, we don’t serve it. And it’s the same with me. I look around and see that a chicken breast has been overcooked? We toss it out and start again!”
“Jules has been good to me because in addition to caring about the quality of food, Anita cares about the quality of life of her employees–and she’s loyal. So I’m of course happy to do my very best for her. I have a good palate…maybe I have this little talent…and–even after all these years–I still enjoy my work.”
“…an honor and a privilege”
We bid adieu to Jean-Claude, then climbed the stairs to Jules Catering’s office, to elicit the final word from Jules’ Owner-Chef, Anita Baglaneas. Early in Anita’s career, when she was a line cook at Rebecca’s Cafe, she worked under Jean-Claude’s tutelage.
“He’s just a great chef who knows how to make food taste good,” Anita matter-of-factly explained. “And he’s a wonderful teacher. It’s thanks to him that I know how to make the best-ever pâté, both country pâté and goose liver! Simply put, it’s an honor and a privilege to have Jean-Claude working in Jules’ kitchen.”
Liz Muir: Portraits of Jean-Claude Banderier, Garden-fresh Onions, Pigs in Repose, Garlic, Eggshells
Aveyron Department of Tourism: Vineyard in l’Aveyron
Wikipedia: Pain de Campagne, Les Halles Dome, Postcard of Vierzon
French KlimBim, Etsy: French Geography Book
Samadhi: Disposition à la Française
Robert Doisneau, www.pasasparis.com: Butchers, Market at Rue Montorgueil