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The Grand Gourmet of Eaton Rapids


When Denene Vincent was seriously injured at work after slipping on an oil-slicked floor, she recovered with a little help from an idol: Julia Child.

“She completely changed my life,” says Vincent. “After my accident, I picked up her biography Appetite for Life and realized that she didn’t start cooking until her mid-thirties. I thought, ‘What am I worrying about? I’m still young.’ It taught me that it’s never too late for anything. It was a real inspiration.”

That’s when Vincent began brainstorming.

“I’m a firm believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,’ so it seemed like fate,” Vincent says. “I needed to explore other avenues. I got a call from a few ladies asking if I would teach some cooking classes, and that was when I was starting my own business.”

That was February, 2003. Today, Le Chat Gourmet is thriving

Philosophy of Food

Le Chat Gourmet is based out of Vincent’s Eaton Rapids, Mich., home. Nestled away from busy streets and surrounded by gardens and woods, it has its own entrance, patio and 1000-square-foot kitchen.

With dozens of different classes available to all levels of cooking experience, Vincent’s clients get to experience a variety of fresh foods and food cultures, including Thai, Spanish and Italian.

Classes rotate each month, and run Wednesdays through Saturdays from 6:00 to 9:30 p.m., with a special Saturday morning class from 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Each class begins with a trek out to the gardens to harvest the fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs that will be used during the lesson.

“It’s important to see where food comes from, what’s in season and out,” Vincent says. “It doesn’t get any better than that freshness.”

Her classes hold four to twelve people. You register for each class individually—no long-term commitment necessary—and she cover diverse topics such as Knife Skills, Sauces and Outdoor Grilled Pizza.

A typical weeknight class begins with introductions, an overlay of the kitchen and safety, and a trip out to the garden before heading back inside to do the hands-on work. Next is prep time, when Vincent answers questions, and then class continues until a full meal has been prepared.

“Everyone works on everything. It’s very social and fun,” Vincent says. “Then we all sit down at the table for a full meal. It’s about friends and family gathering at the table to share food and stories. It’s about cooking together, sitting down to eat together, and making friends.”

Culinary Adventures

In addition to on-site classes, Vincent also conducts team building sessions for companies and occasional demonstrations (At the premiere of Julie and Julia, she did a live cooking demo at Celebration Cinemas in Lansing).

She also offers Junior Chefs classes for kids ages 8-16. “Kids are sharp and like sponges, they don’t want things dumbed-down, so I address them like adults,” Vincent says. “The main difference is that the food is more kid-friendly and not quite as involved. They love it though. They have so much fun and can be themselves while doing something they love.”

During the summer, Vincent also offers a week-long culinary excursion to Italy once a year. She and six to eight guests travel to Tuscany where they stay at a villa, visit Vincent’s many Italian friends and dining with them, take classes at the villa, attend olive oil and wine-tastings, and spend a day in Florence at a huge food market packed with everything from herbs to fruit to meat to wine—all fresh.

“I love to travel, and it was important for me to travel and learn how things were prepared and created around the world.” Vincent says. “I keep things small and intimate, and I try to make them feel like honorary citizens—very personalized.”

Le Chat Gourmet regulars, Deb Fennell and Nancy Enslin, ventured to Italy with Vincent after taking classes with her for more than a year and a half.

“It was all a wonderfully happy time,” says Fennell. “The people were so welcoming. It was more than just a culinary adventure — you get a taste of their culture, too.”

“It was such a wondrous experience, Deb and I are thinking of going on the 2012 trip to France!” Enslin adds.

Growing Gourmet

Vincent grew up on a farm in Leslie, Mich. Both sets of grandparents were farmers. That, she explains, is where she got her “from the ground to the table” approach.

“I’ve always been [in the kitchen],” says Vincent. ”I would help my mom and my grandmothers in the kitchen. I would help one grandmother decorate cakes and I would bake sugar cookies with my mom.”

“When several of us learned that Denene was thinking about starting her own gourmet cooking school, we pulled a small brainstorm group together and listened to her describe her vision. We couldn't help but be excited about it, too,” explains Sheri Greenhoe, a former Iron Chef judge and friend of Vincent’s.

“It's been incredible to see what she has done with that vision, and how she's grown Le Chat Gourmet into a very successful business that is satisfying to her—both in a business sense, and to her personally,” says Greenhoe. “And it's certainly satisfying to her clients!”

Vincent’s devotion has helped her successfully run her business, but it has also given her a devoted following. Many of her customers return every month with friends and family. Others bring their entire families in during the holiday season as a way to celebrate the season.

“My siblings and I decided a few years ago that, rather than exchange gifts at Christmas, we'd spend our money making a memory,” says Greenhoe. She brings her family, including spouses and children, out to the facility to cook a big meal.

“We just love creating our Christmas-time meal together at Le Chat Gourmet,” she says. “It's a lot of fun because we get divided into small teams and really get to interact with each other—plus the end result is delicious!”

Kids and Classes

“She has an interesting sort of personality to be a chef,” Fennell says of her teacher and friend. “You see these TV shows with temperamental chefs, but Denene is gentle. She takes time with every person and is patient. Even though I’ve been cooking for more than 40 years, I learn something new every time.”

Going forward, Vincent plans to maintain her current prices (she’s done so successfully since she started seven and a half years ago), and increase outreach with new Twitter and Facebook tools.

“Once you've been to Le Chat Gourmet for a class, you want to do it again because it's fun, and it really lifts your own quality of life when you take some of those lessons and recipes home,” Greenhoe says.

For a list of classes and contact information, visit Le Chat Gourmet’s website or call (517) 663-7322.

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Kelsey Turek works at Brilliance Audio in Grand Haven, Mich. She loves her job, but loves writing and learning about people and their endeavors more, so she freelances and writes books in her “down” time. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.



Photos:

Summer Sweet Corn Soup with Butter Poached Lobster

Denene Vincent


Roasting Red Peppers

Lemon Crème Brule

Creating ravioli
 
Le Chat Gourmet class at work

Enjoying the meal at the end of class

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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