King of the Kitchen

May 25, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

Rue Royale to French House Royalty

King of the Kitchen
(ISAAC GATENO/The Staford Daily)

Imagine you’re a chef. One day, while preparing dinner, you hear a knock on the door to your kitchen, and there stands Nelson Mandela, excitedly awaiting your food.

Not many chefs have had an experience like this one, but Juan Jose, the chef for French House and Phi Psi, has had many extraordinary culinary and life experiences. For the past five years, every weekday, from morning until night, Jose creates delicious food for the residents of both houses.

Juan Jose, or “J.J.,” as he is fondly referred to by house residents, has gone through quite an interesting journey to end up at Stanford.

Born in Majorca, an island off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, Jose trained at Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy. But he didn’t always know that he wanted to become a chef. He originally was headed for a career as a lawyer and attended the University of Salamanca for a short time before realizing that it wasn’t for him.

“I was the black sheep,” Jose said. “I was at the University for one year and said ‘I don’t like it, I don’t want to do this.’ My girlfriend and I were both rebellious, so we both left for France. And we slept by the beautiful river under the bridges, with all the hippies, painters at the time.” In need of money, he got a job in the kitchen of Maxim’s, a world-famous, landmark restaurant on the rue Royale.

Jose had no previous cooking knowledge, so he began with peeling potatoes and other menial tasks. After his first month, his supervisor told him he had the ability to become something more in the kitchen. He recommended Jose for Le Cordon Bleu, the world’s largest hospitality education institution, where renowned chefs such as Mario Batali and Julia Child have trained in the art of cooking.

Jose spent five years training at Le Cordon Bleu. He was initially to learn the craft of making sauces as a saucier. Finding that working as a saucier was not to his liking, Jose then trained as a pastry chef, and, after not enjoying either of the two positions, he finally spent three years training in cooking.

After Le Cordon Bleu, Jose returned home to Majorca and worked for a yacht company as a private chef, cooking for various important figures visiting Majorca. He met an ambassador who asked him to come to New York and work as a chef for the United Nations.

At the U.N., each ambassador has his or her own chef who accompanies the ambassador on trips around the world and prepares meals for dignitaries, heads of state, monarchs and even actors. During his 27 years at the U.N., Jose met a range of prominent figures, such as Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg.

The life of a chef in the U.N. is exciting but also demanding. Jose described spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week with the ambassadors. The chefs would spend months with the ambassadors while the U.N. was in session, and then spend a month of each year volunteering their services for a non-profit cause, such as UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders, as was Jose’s case.

The most unusual circumstances Jose has cooked in were while working with Doctors Without Borders in Kosovo during the war with Serbia.

“We had bombs all over us,” Jose recalled. “The doctors were still operating like it was nothing, and they were asking me for food, and I was like ‘Wow!’”

Jose has almost met countless world leaders. His meeting with Nelson Mandela stands out in his mind.

“I was in the ambassador house and Mr. Mandela was coming to have dinner,” he said. “The wife of the ambassador asked me to do African food, because he thought it would impress him. I went to go buy the things in Brooklyn, and we had everything ready; the dinner was supposed to be at six o’clock. Mr. Mandela came to the kitchen office where you put the food through.”

Mandela had wanted to come and meet the chef, expressing how much he loved Spanish food while the ambassador stood behind Mandela whispering “Spanish, Spanish food!” leaving Jose to change the entire dinner from African to Spanish food in an hour.

“But the surprise to see Mr. Mandela in front of you was one of the beautiful days of my life.”

Jose described travelling to all parts of the world with the principal ambassadors he worked with, and occasionally travelling on his own abroad in search of recipes at the request of the ambassadors.

“All of the ambassadors had their own private planes. My favorite ambassador asked me to find out the recipe of a dish that he liked in Brazil. So I had to get the plane, go to Brazil, eat at that restaurant, give $500 to the chef to give me the recipe, and make that recipe for the ambassador. You have to understand, they already have everything. You cannot cook classics, so you have to improve, you have to improvise every time.”

“Food is very important for some ambassadors,” Jose said in reflecting on the importance of food within the scope of the U.N. and international relations. “I mean, sometimes food is religion. And they’re out of their own country, so they want the food from their own country.”

When his daughter was born, however, Jose retired from the U.N., leaving with full benefits. He and his wife, who also works in the hospitality business, moved to the Bay Area. After a short term of staying at home as a retired father, however, Jose needed to get out of the house.

“I retired, I really didn’t need to work. But I was in the house, and I noticed there was more work to be done in the house, and I was the maid of the house . . . I just wanted to get out of the house. It’s not my natural ambiance.” Jose started looking for a way to fill his time outside of his home.

Though Google wanted to hire him, Jose came to Stanford to look into working in one of the houses, eventually deciding that he liked French House. Jose explained that working on the school year calendar suits him and his family, as he is able to travel to Europe during the summer and see his family in Spain.

“I came for one year, maybe two. Well, now, this is my fifth year. I love to work here with the students. It’s not a job, it’s having fun. That’s why I come back every year.”

The students in French House speak highly of Jose, praising his homemade baguettes and scrumptious special dinners, which most recently featured Kobe beef and lobster surf ‘n’ turf.

Beyond getting to consistently taste his world-class cooking skills, the residents enjoy their relationship with the chef.

“He has a really funny sense of humor,” said Eduard Negiar ‘13. “Since he knows that French House in general is pretty liberal, he pretends to like Sarah Palin and stuff,” to which the residents responded by putting up posters of Obama all around the kitchen.

“J.J.’s a really interesting guy,” said Charlie Janac ‘13. “He has some great stories to tell, and it’s pretty cool he’s our chef, because, well, the food’s always great.”

“I have a lot of fun with the students, it’s a very fun house,” Jose said. “The most rewarding thing for me is to see people happy with my food. Food is one of the most difficult things as a profession, to make everyone happy in the house.”

Eventually, Jose and his wife hope to move back to Majorca or Portugal. But for now, he likes California, which he says reminds him of Majorca in some ways. He also seems to have developed a taste for American food. Despite his high-brow culinary education and background, Jose’s favorite food is Kentucky Fried Chicken wings. Jose joked, “It may be junk food, but I love it.”


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