You might say the founder of Le Chat Gourmet Culinary Arts in Eaton Rapids has the perfect recipe for success. Executive chef and owner Denene Vincent takes equal parts of a love for cooking and a passion for empowering people, adds a heaping helping of experience in kitchens abroad and in the U.S. and mixes it all together, serving it up in a homey setting. Those are the ingredients that have made Le Chat Gourmet the place to go to learn to cook for young and old, experienced and beginner. And if a culinary tour is more to your taste, Vincent accompanies small groups to Tuscany, Italy, Provence, France and other venues. These tours are very popular — so much so that they’re often booked before Vincent is able to post them on her website. Vincent is a seasoned chef who started out creating French pastries under the tutelage of a French pâtissier (pastry chef) in France. Eventually, she ventured to the “other side” of the kitchen and created dishes for entire meals. “Baking is very scientific and precise,” she said. One slight variation — an ingredient, a measurement — can make or break a recipe. But you can be more creative when cooking. Vincent knows a lot about creativity. She holds an art degree, and she used her sense of style when she and her husband converted the lower level of their home, nestled off a country road in Eaton Rapids, into a state-of-the-art kitchen and dining area. Amidst the warm red brick and stainless steel fixtures, the décor includes an original Tappan stove from her grandmother’s kitchen and a large wooden table and chairs her grandfather crafted. The kitchen is equipped with cooking tools and professional appliances to make any foodie envious. She describes her grandmothers and mom as “great country cooks.” Even though her mother has her staple of country meals, she always encouraged Vincent to try new recipes. “One day I’d come home and say that I wanted to try something called lasagna, so we found a recipe and made it. Another time, it could be tacos or some other food,” she said. Vincent extends that same spirit to her young students. During a typical weeklong session, kids make traditional meals from Monday through Thursday. On Friday, they take part in an Iron Chef competition — they’re given one ingredient to use as the centerpiece of a dish. They get to choose the rest. Their creations are judged for taste, presentation and creativity by a panel of prominent community members. The mayor of Eaton Rapids has served as a judge on occasion and Vincent’s mom is a more permanent one. She says her young chefs are the most creative and are not afraid to “experiment” with dishes. Vincent believes in buying locally. In fact, in season, her students pick fresh ingredients for their creations from her vegetable and herb gardens located in her own backyard. She also buys fresh produce and ingredients from vendors who sell local products. But there’s more to cooking than creating meals. Cooking is a great group activity. With that in mind Vincent hosts corporate groups who create meals together as teambuilding exercises. She wants to instill this spirit of adventure in cooking in her students — young and old and a feeling of accomplishment. Everybody can cook. Vincent believes with a little patience, the right ingredients and a spirit of fun, we can all whip up meals that delight. Le Chat Gourmet, 11874 Bunker Hwy., Eaton Rapids. For more info (517) 663-7322.
Ann Cool, MPS, is a freelance writer who lives in Mason with her husband Bob.