The Early Years
Jean-Claude was born in France in the mid-40s. When he was six months old his parents divorced. At the age of five he was sent to live with his grandmother, Francine. He shares his first memory of Christmas spent with her: “I was six and my present was two oranges and ten candies. I was so happy. I had never seen oranges and candies in my life.” His grandmother and her sister enrolled Jean-Claude in a Catholic school and every night, he listened as one of them read to him about Jesus. Jean-Claude’s love for cooking was born in his grandmother’s kitchen. “Grandmother Francine was of Italian descent and was an excellent cook,” he says. When he was seven years old, she began to teach him how to prepare a few simple recipes. His first dish was polenta, a slow-cooked Italian cornmeal dish.
His family’s dream was to have a Catholic priest in the family, so when Jean-Claude was eleven he was sent to seminary. However, missing his grandmother, he had a difficult time with this change. The seminary was a very tough environment with a lot of discipline. He found solace in helping in their kitchen.
One day he was called in to the office and was told his “Grandma Francine” had died of cancer. He remembers how peaceful she looked when he returned home. “I knew she was with Jesus,” says Jean-Claude. At her funeral, Jean-Claude was introduced to a man he had never met before and would never see again. That man was his father, who chose not to return to his family after he served in WWII.
Returning to the seminary was not easy for Jean-Claude. Finally, after two and a half years, he realized the priesthood was not for him. Six months later he left and hitchhiked his way back home. After receiving an angry scolding from his older brother, his brother asked, “Now that you have left seminary, what do you want to do with your life?” His simple
reply was, “I want to be a chef.”
The Big Break
At fourteen, Jean Claude began to work at Le petit Vatel, a restaurant
in Lyon, France, where he received his first cook’s jacket. He says, “I
was so happy. I went to the bar and celebrated. It was there I had my first
drink.” The pay was low and he worked long hours. He often lived on
the street during this time. But by the time he was seventeen, he had finished
his three-year apprenticeship, was working in a prestigious restaurant,
and had his own apartment. Jean-Claude says he began “wheeling
and dealing” and after being scared by the police and “the bad boys,” he
decided it would be best for him to leave France. Soon, he was on a boat
headed for America.
Within a year Jean-Claude became Executive Chef at New York’s Le Mistral, a popular restaurant. At 24, he was cooking for many celebrities of the day, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, Milton Berle, Duke Ellington, among others. During Jean- Claude’s ascent into wealth and culinary fame, he met a beautiful woman, Martine, and they were married.
The Fast Lane
Before long they decided to move to south Florida, where he began to work at a French restaurant, La Reserve. They bought their first home, a new car and boat, and spent their free time diving and water skiing. Still chasing fame, Jean-Claude once again changed jobs and became Executive Chef for Yesterdays, a restaurant that overlooked the
Intracoastal Waterway. Yesterdays quickly became a popular spot known for its exotic food and night life.
Fame, however, came with a high price tag for Jean-Claude. He often began work at eight in the morning and ended in the early morning hours the following day. Gone were the days of leisure spent on the boat with his friends. “It was work, work, and work,” says Jean-Claude. “I became a little Napoleon, screaming and yelling all day, firing people for no reason.”
He started using cocaine to keep up the pace and spent even more time drinking in the bars before going home. He met another woman and began to see her regularly. Eventually, Martine moved back to New York and they divorced.
The Downward Spiral
Burned out from working in a high-volume restaurant, Jean-Claude became part owner of a five star restaurant called the Plum Room at Yesterday’s. The decreased responsibility gave him more time to party. One night while drinking and driving, he totaled his car. On another occasion when he had too much to drink, he shot at a man. Finally, in 1982, he was asked to surrender his keys to the restaurant. Jean-Claude was fired.
After a while, he moved back to New York, landed a great job at the famous Regine and married a beautiful woman named Patricia who was working there. “Patricia and I were living the New York lifestyle,” says Jean-Claude. When Regine closed, his old boss from Yesterday’s called and wanted him back. So he left New York and returned to Florida. There he continue drinking and partying and his second marriage came to an end. He was fired again because of frequent drinking binges and his girlfriend at the time eventually threw him out on the street. “The only place I had left
was my car,” says Jean-Claude. “I was homeless. I slept and took showers on the beach, slept behind dumpsters and looked for half empty drinks in garbage cans.”
Crisis and the Cross
Finally Jean Claude decided to put an end to a lifestyle filled with loss and dead ends. “Late one morning I determined that the best way to kill myself was to drive 100 miles per hour, take off the seat belt and close my eyes,” he says. On his way to the interstate he passed Dr. D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Church. “I parked my car across from the church and looked up at the cross.
I started shaking and exploded in tears. I stared at the cross and was overwhelmed with an awesome feeling of peace. Jesus was telling me “Come home my son. Come to me now.” Within a few weeks Jean-Claude began looking for a
place to worship. One afternoon he went to Calvary Chapel. “The pastor put his arm around my shoulder and asked if he could pray with me,” recalls Jean-Claude. He returned that evening and shares what happened when the altar call was given: “I walked up and gave my life to my Savior Jesus Christ.” After he was almost six months sober, Jean-Claude drank on Christmas Eve. His best friend, Greg, found him seventeen days later. “I was lying in bed. I hadn’t shaved or showered, and there were empty bottles everywhere.” He was barely able to talk and so weak he couldn’t stand. The
next morning, Greg checked him into rehab.
The Complete Surrender
On his first day at rehab he required medication every few hours. One minute he was freezing cold and the next minute he was hot. Sweat poured off of him. The following morning he prayed, “Please help me,
Jesus. I am lost and I need you in my heart. Please, Jesus, help me and guide me.” He asked for a Bible and began reading the New Testament. He also attended the AA meetings. Jean-Claude’s life was finally beginning to change.
Upon completing the program and arriving home, Jean-Claude dropped to his knees and prayed, asking the Lord for peace, comfort, and wisdom. He called an old friend, Viny, and got a job in his Italian restaurant as a chef. He bought a bicycle and rode to work, his AA meetings and church. During this time his friend Greg also placed his trust in Christ. Jean-Claude says, “It is amazing that the Lord used Greg to help me with my disease and later, Jesus used me to bring Greg to Him. Thank You, Lord.”“God knew where He wanted me to grow,” says Jean-Claude. “He led
me to work in ministry at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, where I learned more of His great love for me and for others. While he was involved, worked hard, and stayed sober, he still had an eye for the ladies. One night in church the Holy Spirit convicted him of his sin. “I went to the altar and asked Jesus for forgiveness,” he says. He spent the next several years paying off attorney’s fees in excess of $20,000 as a result of previous DWI charges. “I had lost everything and it was going to take time to rebuild.”
He still struggled with “that old French chef pride,” but continually encountered situations that began to teach him humility and obedience. Over time, he realized the fear and loneliness that still plagued him. Finally, at a point of surrender, he handed his future over to the Lord. “That day my attitude changed completely. I started to live with faith and trust in Him. I felt free from bondage and I knew that He had a plan for my life.”
The Test of Faith
A few months later a tall, young man named Anthony began working in the kitchen at Calvary Chapel for the summer. He was Billy Graham’s grandson, who had taken on the job before entering college. As they worked together, they became good friends. One day Anthony told Jean-Claude that the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove was in need of an executive chef. He asked him if he would be interested in the position. Shortly after, Jean-Claude went to Asheville for his first interview.
When he arrived for a second interview, Anthony picked him up at the airport and said, ‘I have a surprise for you.”
Anthony drove up a mountain and parked in front of a rustic house. There in the living room sat a very humble and peaceful man, the Reverend Billy Graham. “He asked me to sit down and share my testimony with him, recalls
Jean-Claude. “We had great conversation and a time of powerful prayer. I knew that Jesus was there in the room. This was a divine appointment.”
The Blessing of Obedience
Jean-Claude realizes he was not sent to The Cove just to cook. “I understand that Jesus brought me here to mold me to be a better Christian. Not only did He give me the beautiful gift of cooking, but He has taught me how to love others. He also wanted me to learn His Word.” Jean-Claude has also become a chaplain with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team and travels all over the country sharing the gospel. He brings food to the homeless and teaches Bible in the prison. He lives in a small log cabin situated in the mountains, a beautiful setting for him to photograph God’s creation. His stunning photos will be included in a cookbook called “Chef Jean-Claude’s Recipe’s for living” a Testimony in the Name of Jesus. He is in the process of completing his project, which many eagerly await. It will have 75-plus gourmet recipes, 80 Bible scriptures, 50 of is own beautiful photography, and fascinating personal stories. Fluent in the Creole language, he hopes to one day be a missionary to Haiti. Jean-Claude is no longer the same “proud Frenchman” who once craved fortune and fame. He is a man who has found the perfect recipe for a new life filled with an extra portion of peace—Jesus Christ.
“Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”—Psalm 34:8
-By Beverly Strobolakos
Reach Out Columbia Magazine