Bon Appetite: An Interview with Cyril Denis

By: Anna Nickerson | June 28, 2018
Topics: Interviews
Curious to hear from the perspective of a French Chef? When I was in Paris in April, I had the unique opportunity to interview Cyril Denis. He has an incredible story, and even shared some amazing tips with me! Bon Appetite!

When I went to Paris for my ISP, I took cooking and baking classes at La Cuisine, a cooking school in the heart of Paris. I took a variety of classes and learned how to make classic French sauces, macarons, eclairs, and I even learned how to de-bone a chicken. Cooking is something I’ve only recently become interested in, and my independent week was the best way for me to dive into the topic and learn about French cuisine, which I absolutely love. I had a great time with my chef for the French sauces course, Cyril Denis. I had the opportunity to interview him, while enjoying wine and cheese of course, and I was so intrigued by his background and story. I appreciated his candidness and generosity in answering my questions so openly…

How would you describe your job title?

Cyril: “I have two jobs in my life. I am a journalist and a chef. When I was younger, I did 3 years of cooking school in Paris. I wanted to be a chef, but when I discovered their mentality, I said it’s not for me and I’m going to be unhappy in life. The mentality was that you got hit and punched in the kitchen… It’s an acting part of being a chef. And so, you had to hit. In life, some people are very into contact and conflict and I’ve never been like that. There’s also no respect for women. I just didn’t feel welcome in professional kitchens. So, I decided to do something else. After cooking school, I did 3 years of business school. After I discovered I didn’t want to be a chef, I needed to open my vision of life… And when I came out of school, my friend [gave me an opportunity] and I became a journalist! I worked 4 years for the best live show and I finished as a journalist in the news. I became what we call, “JRI” which means you’re a journalist and you know how to shoot images. 7 years later I left the show. Then I became a journalist for the only food channel we had in France, where I stayed almost 8 years. I was not on air, but I was behind the camera as the chief editor of two shows. Then I worked for some other channels, but 3 years ago fewer shows were interesting for me, so I had to ask myself what I wanted to do. I wanted more professional experience in cooking. I worked in a lab for 10 months to practice. The woman I worked for told me that she wanted her company to become bigger and asked me to become her chef. And I said no because it didn’t feel right for me. She said she needed to leave her work where she was a teacher. And that was La Cuisine. So, she introduced me to the two owners. I did a month of tests and I got the job! That was 2.5 years ago, and I’ve been teaching there ever since.”

Cyril demonstrating his piping skills in his “Elegant Entertaining / The Art of the Parisian Apéro class.”

What or who inspires you?

 Cyril: “People who have inspired me the most are women, not men. It’s funny because if we are talking about cooking in France, the people who have been important for the past century have been women. There’s a few men who were chefs for the kings, but in the everyday cooking, women were much more important than men.

So, who inspired me? My great grandmother who was Italian. She was a personal cook. She used to go to people’s homes and cook Italian. She moved from Italy to France when she was 12, in 1910, and at that time, she moved with her whole village. They moved all together, 2,000 of them, and it’s why she never spoke French in her life. She was an incredible woman. I loved her. She was a big inspiration for me. She had no money, but was happy every day. She was always happy with what she had, which is important in life. That’s my philosophy of life.

The second woman who inspired me a lot was my American teacher in New Jersey. I lived there when I was 6 until I was 10. When I arrived in New Jersey, my parents didn’t want me to go to a French School. They wanted me to go to an American school. So, I had 2 months to learn English. My school’s principal suggested that I meet with Margaret Lopez, one of the best teachers. So, for 2 months, I was with Margaret from Monday to Friday, learning English. After 2 months, we were best friends. Until she died in 1998, I’ve stayed very close to her. Every time I went back to the US, the first person I saw was Margaret. She was more than a grandmother for me. I am still friends with two of her children. They’re like family for me. So, the two inspirations in my life are women.”

 What is your fondest memory of cooking?

Cyril: “Of course, it has to be in the family, because this is what inspired me most. My grandmother used to make Brioche and I can remember the smell of the yeast and the dough and that has a very special scent to me.”

Do you like to cook cuisine other than French foods?

Cyril: “After French, it’s Italian. I am half French, half Italian. I think that today the best country in Europe is Italy, not France. For ingredients, France is half of what Italy is. In Italy, almost 90% of what you find is great because they have protected all of their products legally, which France has failed to do. So of course, I love to prepare Italian food and it also reminds me of my great grandmother. I also love Japanese. Since I was 6, one of my favorite books was about the everyday life of a little Japanese girl. My parents had no connections to it, I just chose the book all on my own and I was amazed by it. I made my mom buy me chopsticks so I could eat rice out of my bowl. It was totally free inspiration. For many years, I had forgotten about this but it came back to me more recently. It came back strongly. For the past 4 years now, I am organizing the largest sake fair in the world outside of Japan in Paris.”

Cyril demonstrating how to whisk properly during my sauce class with him!

What is your favorite food to serve?

Cyril: “I love family-type food, like stews. It is something very basic, but my favorite is a creamy sauce with veal, carrots, and onions. Not many French people know how to make it properly, because if you want to do it the right way, it takes a long time. It’s quite complicated, and this type of dish is my favorite to serve others.”

What are some of the big lessons you’ve learned after working in different aspects of the cooking scene?

 Cyril: “Once I did the portrait of a 3-star Michelin chef, the number one chef to cook vegetables in Paris today, and when I did his portrait he showed me something I’ve never seen before: how to cook a lobster properly. He just allowed the lobster to inspire him: he wanted to constantly make it better. Most chefs are into speed, but you have to be more than just working during the service and restaurant moment. Your mind is going in other places than a regular chef. Not just because he showed me that trick, because you need to think when you have an ingredient. He showed me with one example that with cooking it’s nice to think before you cook.”

What advice do you have to people who are interested in cooking, but aren’t lucky enough to come to Paris to take one of your classes?

Cyril: “Wherever you are in the world, there’s one thing that you have to do before knowing how to cook: how to buy. You’ll always do the best cooking, even if you’re not the best technician, if you have the best product. And the best product doesn’t mean the most expensive- the best carrot, the best salt, the best bread. I am talking about the love of cooking. You want to get the best when you love cooking. You start inspiring when you go to the best places to get your ingredients. Buy the best ingredients with the money you have. If one day, you only have a little then do the best grated carrots with mayonnaise- not the worst lobster.”

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