Many years ago when I first arrived in London, I worked for a Large Soft-drink Company. The job was only a one month temp job as PA to two of their vice-presidents, but after the initial month was up, they asked me to stay on and work for various other people for a few months. One evening I was getting ready to go home when one of the most senior guys in the office, a slightly unpredictable Austrian, came over and asked me: “Have you ever been to Atlanta? Would you like to go? Tomorrow?” And within 14 hours, I found myself in a British Airways business class seat, sipping champagne en route to Atlanta for the day, clutching a senior executive’s passport (my only duty was to hand it to him at Atlanta airport so that he could board a flight). I figured that this was about a surreal as my working life was ever get – that is, until last November AEG called and asked me “Are you free next weekend and would you like to go to Toronto for two days?”.
The purpose of the flying visit was for me to accompany a film crew who were shooting a series of short Tasteology documentaries for AEG/Electrolux on how the sense of taste can be elevated, highlighting some of the most interesting talents in cooking and food research today. The Toronto shoot was going to focus on anonymous Instagram sensation Chef Jacques la Merde, known as much for his hilarious ALL CAPS CAPTIONS as for his spectacularly beautiful, minimalist plates…. made with what you and I would call junk food – think Dorito dust, crumbled Twinkies and Miracle Whip quenelles. As part of the trip, I would also have the opportunity to interview Chef Jacques, so I set about doing some internet research to learn what I could about him, his sous chef Jose, and his hilarious kitchen calamities (like the “pre-service game of competitive Nerf gun football” that ended in a shattered lobster tank and a flooded restaurant!). I had a picture of him in my mind – something like a more beardy and tattooed but less sweary Anthony Bourdain – and I prepared my serious interview questions accordingly. About an hour before we were due to arrive at Chef Jacques’ apartment, I met the Swedish film crew who wasted no time in gleefully sharing the information that they themselves had only just learnt: he is a she. The famous beardy bro, Chef Jacques la Merde was a woman!
So with all our preconceptions yanked out from under my feet, we set off to meet the woman behind the legend. At her apartment, the concierge took one look at the four of us and our massive cases full of camera kit and said wearily: “You must be here to see Christine Flynn” and sent us up to the apartment where we were greeted by a fresh-faced Christine and a very excited dog. After introductions all round, the film crew started setting up their equipment, giving me a while to sit down and chat to Christine, whom I warmed to the instant I laid eyes on her bookshelf (both for the contents and the colour-co-ordination!). Born in Nova Scotia, her parents cooked a lot and food has always played a big part in her life. Various food-related holiday jobs while studying culminated in her deciding to train as a chef and she describes herself as having a classic French background, including a stage at a Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Back in north America, she found herself running a restaurant in Nantucket but after seven years she found that it was no longer making her happy. She wanted to create plates that were miniature works of art, but this is not how the majority of people want to eat. “Beautiful plating can be very… polarizing”, she says ruefully, choosing her words carefully. Just over two years ago, she returned to Toronto to oversee innovation and culinary concepts for iQ Food Co, a company that develops quickserve restaurants founded on the principles of sustainability and good nutrition.
But despite enjoying her job, she soon found that she missed the creative outlet of daily specials and plating, and missed having a community of chefs around her to bounce ideas off. So one day she decided as a bit of fun to start an anonymous Instagram account and to create a persona to run it, somebody who had their roots in Christine but was sufficiently different to her that her anonymity would remain intact and so, Chef Jacques la Merde was born. I ask about the (brilliant) name and Christine tells me that it is a reference to sailing classes that she took as a child, where they had a European Day and one of the trainers christened himself Captain Jacques la Merde for the day. She loved the name and found it a natural choice for her new Instagram account. Developing Jacques’ persona took a little longer – the initial posts were not in his trademark shouty capitals – but soon Christine fleshed out his character and he quickly developed a distinctive voice. She describes Chef Jacques as “taking a break from reality, and creating something inclusive and lighthearted that made me happy”. She decided early on that he would be a positive voice, with any humour coming from the situations he finds himself in and his reactions, rather than mocking other people, places or trends. “Bad things happen to him, but he bounces back – and he is ridiculously positive”, she says about Jacques. Often, Christine would take events from her own personal life and tell them through the medium of Jacques, a process which she describes as cathartic. A post about relationships and breakups illustrated by an artful plate of broken Drumsticks (Cornettos) remains Jacques’ all-time most popular post. “Chef Jacques La Merde is not so much my alter ego as an extension of myself: loud, flawed, clumsy, romantically disastrous and a bit sloppy – but with some skills”, says Christine. “I love the idea of people picturing this beardy tattooed chef sweating away in a kitchen in Massachusetts, when meanwhile it’s just me and my dog here in my apartment”. And then, just a month or two after she had started the account, both Buzzfeed and Eater posted pieces about it on the same day and Jacques was propelled into Instagram stardom (128,000 followers and counting).
Most descriptions of the Jacques la Merde Instagram account refer to him as “plating junk food like haute cuisine”, a description with which Christine feels slightly uncomfortable. “I’d say he is a guy who plates everyday foods in a modern way”, she says. “I mean, who gets to decide what constitutes junk food anyway? Vegan soy meats certainly aren’t what I’d describe as a whole food and yet they escape the junk label. Calling something junk food implies a value judgement and I don’t agree with that. Jacques recommends portion control, always, but why is a Dorito seen as intrinsically more bad than a slice of foie gras? Describing the everyday food foods that you can find at any gas station as junk makes food into a classist issue.” One of the things Christine has loved about running Chef Jacques’ Instagram account is the challenge of creating beautiful plates from very ordinary food – and people’s surprisingly visceral reactions to the plates when they discover what’s on them. “If you think about it, that’s what artists like Lichtenstein and Basquiat were doing – taking the everyday and turning it into art. Jacques does that with food. He surprises and delights people – if you are able to do that, why wouldn’t you?” Christine loves the artistry involved in the plating at high-end restaurants but bemoans the fact that so few people have access to them. “Jacques showed us that anybody can eat beautiful food, even if they can’t afford lobster. All they need is imagination, time… and a pair of tweezers.”
In some ways, Christine is surprised that people had not guessed her true identity as she has littered Chef Jacques’ Instagram account with clues and references from her own life – some subtle and some obvious. People had figured out that Jacques worked in a kitchen, but one of his most-used words gives a strong clue that he was trained in a classical French kitchen: soigné. Literally, this French word means elegant or polished but in kitchens it’s used to describe an exceptionally sexy dish, or an exceptionally good plating presentation. Scan Chef’ Jacques’ Instagram account and you will find almost every post is hashtagged #soigné and/or features the word in the caption itself. “It’s a bit like a secret handshake – use it and people know you’ve been to culinary school”, says Christine. Other captions featured references to a fictional town in Dawson’s Creek and a character from Anne of Green Gables, one of Christine’s favourite books. I ask her why she decided to create a fictional male chef and the conversation veers off into the state of gender equality in the culinary profession. From the start, she knew that he would be more believable and more popular as a male because “although there are lots of women working in the profession these days, sadly very few are running kitchens”. To make Jacques believable as a kind of chef everyman, he had to be a man. “Do you like Jacques? Will you miss him when you reveal your identity?” asks the film crew? “Whoa – that’s too meta, even for me!” quips Christine.
Then it’s off to the local gas station shop with the film crew in tow, partly to stock up on some of Jacques’ essentials for creating a dish and partly because the the sous vide egg yolks Christie is preparing will need another 40 minutes to reach the desired consistency. We cause quite a stir when we arrive – the shop is literally smaller than half a tennis court with only two aisles, so Christine, the film crew, all their equipment and I take up at least one whole aisle at any given moment. Staying out of shot is hard as is the task of getting curious bystanders to act normal and not stare at the camera as it follows Christine down the aisles reading the label on a pack of Twinkies and choosing which flavours of Doritos to buy. Having amassed a basket full of E-numbers and refined sugars, we head back to the flat, Christine nonchalantly leading like the Pied Piper and pretending not to notice that she is being trailed by four people touting mobile phones, DSLRs, clipboards, a massive video camera and a huge furry microphone!
Back at the apartment, the crew cluster around the kitchen counter while Christine prepares a typical Chef Jacques dish: Macedoine of hamsteak anointed with Kraft Singles cheese tuille, sous vide egg yolk, leaves two ways, mustard, sweet potato wheat thins, and pickled seaweed “from the restaurant’s shattered lobster tank”. Despite the fact that there are no fine or expensive ingredients on the plate, she gives everything the full chef treatment, from the egg yolks that have been simmering away at 61C for an hour to the reformed ham that she cubes, to the processed Kraft cheese slices, left on the kitchen counter for a day or so and now alarmingly dehydrated and crisp like tuilles. The cooked eggs are cracked open and the runny whites are painstakingly rinsed off the custard-like yolks as she cradles them in her hands under a running tap. The reformed ham is chopped into perfectly regular cubes smaller than board game dice before being plated in a stainless steel ring; and the “pickled seaweed” is carefully tweezered into place as garnish. This melange of the cheffy and everyday ingredients is Jacques’ stock in trade – glance through his Instagram account and you will see Skittles, Doritos, Babybel cheese, flowers/leaves form the garden, Pringles, Cheese Strings, Oreos, Kraft dressing and hand-torn Twinkie chunks nonchalantly sharing plates with pink peppercorns, sous vide eggs and bits of edible gold leaf. I ask whether she ever eats one of Jacques’ exquisite plates. “Hah – maybe very occasionally”, she replies, “but mostly it’s my dog that eats it!”
We carry on chatting while and after she plates her dish, with the talk turning to the newly-fashionable chef culture. “When I started working in kitchens, cooking was regarded as low-wage blue-collar work. There was no question of rock star chefs with an entourage and artisan knives that cost £5,000 per inch of steel. Cheffing is very, very different how, as are the customers.” I ask her about the series of Instagram tributes she was asked to create to honour Rene Redzepi of Noma which she says she absolutely loved doing. Like Heston Blumenthal, she regards him as a visionary and an artist but also, like her, a product of the old blue-collar chef ethic rather than a product of the celebrity chef culture that permeates high-end restaurants today. It is this culture that she has used Jacques’ voice to gently poke fun at. “I wanted the account to be satirical but never mean”, she says, “but the truth is that chefs at that top of their profession are catering to an elite clientele with prices out of reach of most people. Plating is hubris and wealthy diners are collecting Michelin-starred restaurant meals like trading cards. The two sides of the equation ratchet each other up, leading to smaller portions, more bizarre ingredients and outlandish platings. Jacques gently pokes fun at all that, but in a non-confrontational way. I want to make people think about the craziness of the whole culture.”
Unsurprisingly, art is another passion of Christine’s (and mine) and I mention that Jacques’ food reminds me of a colourful art installation I once saw at the Tate Modern. It caught the eye from a couple of rooms away but as you approached you realised that it was made up of colourful broken plastic objects, scavenged from rubbish dumps. Christine immediately agrees that there are huge parallels between this kind of art and chef Jacques’ plates. One of the things she enjoys most about posting as Jacques is the duality of the images – people are instantly drawn to them because they represent how we think high-end aspirational food should look. But upon discovering that they are in fact made of ingredients that most food snobs would never buy, this creates an immediate tension between the senses and the rational mind. I ask Christine whether she thinks tasteless food, beautifully plated, can fool the mind into experiencing the meal as delicious. “I wouldn’t go that far”, she replies, “ but there is certainly a body of research into the effect of visual factors like colour or the colour of the dining room’s walls on how people experience food. Taste is so subjective and goes far further than just the tastebuds – it is also a product of who that person is, how they got here, their past and their memories.” She believes that your best meals will be defined not by the taste of the food but by the totality of the experience: “I would eat deep-fried cardboard if I got to eat it with the people I love”.
At the time of our interview last year, Christine’s identity was still a closely guarded secret which was only made public in January 2016. I ask her whether she will miss Jacques after the big reveal and whether she thinks he has served any purpose, other than surprising and delighting Instagram users. She looks pensive for a moment before answering: “Ultimately I hope Jacques has started some important conversations in a light-hearted and non-prescriptive way. I want people to ask themselves why the idea of everyday food plated in this way is so shocking. I want them to consider that these are the foods that people have access too, far more so than artisan mozzarella and truffles. I want people to talk about food deserts and the affordability of organic produce – those are far more important conversations that we need to be having”. And with that, she tweezers the final fleck of edible gold leaf into place before carrying the plate to her lounge table and starting to shoot Instagram images, back in character as Jacques la Merde and seemingly oblivious to the film crew.
You can read my previous post where I interviewed Chef Jacques here.
Image © and courtesy of House of Radon
Christine was revealed as the chef behind the Jacques la Merde Instagram account on 28 January 2016 when she joined other chefs cooking a Jacques la Merde “coming out party” in Cambridge Massachusetts. Since January, she has been involved in a number of culinary collaborations including as a guest presenter/chef at Toronto’s Terroir Symposium; a social ambassador for the EAT (RED) campaign; and as a co-founder of the Women’s Hospitality League, an organization dedicated to highlighting women in leadership and facilitating mentorship opportunities in the hospitality industry. Chef Jacques la Merde is still posting to Instagram, and still SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS.
The Tasteology documentary is a culinary journey that will explore the relationship between science, experience, culture and society in order to deconstruct taste from an entirely new perspective. Through four episodes (Source, Chill, Heat and Experience), Tasteology will take viewers around the world to discover what happens when you ask renowned experts like Christine as well as Charles Spence, (Oxford University professor of experimental psychology researching how much of the eating experience actually comes from food); foraging trendsetters and chefs Satchiko and Hisato Nakahigashi; Mark Schatzker (author of ‘The Dorito Effect’, a book covering artificial flavouring and America’s health crisis); German chef and Wagyu cow breeder Ludwig Maurer; and gastro-chemist Hervé This (who taught the world how to boil an egg in a dishwasher) the same questions once reserved for traditional chefs. The film will be released on 25 May 2016 – and you can watch the official trailer below.
Want a chance to WIN a double ticket to an exclusive VIP ‘eat-along’ pre-release screening lunch at 1pm on Saturday 21st May at the Andaz Hotel in London? This multi-sensory 2.5 hour experience will include four courses and drinks that co-ordinate with the four episodes of the documentary. To enter, simply FOLLOW me on Twitter @Cooksisterblog and RETWEET the tweet below. Full terms & conditions available here. GOOD LUCK!
— CookSister (@cooksisterblog) May 11, 2016
DISCLOSURE: I was flown to Toronto by AEG for the purpose of interviewing Chef Jacques la Merde but I received no further remuneration to write this post. I retained full editorial control.
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