URBANA--Chef Jean Louis Ledent, well known to central Illinoisans for the excellent cuisine in his former French restaurants Jean Louis' in Urbana and the French Embassy in Arcola, is teaching students in the hospitality management program at the University of Illinois his special brand of gourmet cookery and business savoir faire.
Fundraising for a $1.5 million renovation project is currently under way for major renovations of Bevier Café, the Spice Box, and the quantity foods kitchen. Now the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences has invested in Chef Ledent in an attempt to move hospitality management and dietetics even further ahead of the curve. "This place is going to look really, really great in a few years, and we want the food to be as exceptional as the décor," Ledent said.
Already, Ledent is offering daily chef's specials that sell out as early as 12 or 12:15. "I've done seafood croquettes and salmon with spaghetti squash. I work with whatever is available that day."
Beth Reutter, who teaches the classroom component of Food Science and Human Nutrition 340, "Quantity Food Production," said the students find it exciting that Chef doesn't know what he's going to prepare until he walks in that morning.
"They'll ask him for the day's special so they can get the menu board ready, and Chef won't know yet. In two hours, though, he'll have prepared an exceptionally tasty entrée with whatever he has on hand. The students are fascinated, and they love to watch the process," she said.
"I've always liked to teach and show what I know," said Ledent, and his latest career move gives him the best of both worlds, teaching and cooking. "It's just like running my own business without all the headaches, plus I have all this student help. It's really fun to be here."
Ledent, a native of Liege, Belgium, attended cooking school there, then opened his own business. In 1988, he brought his family to the United States where he continued to own and operate French restaurants.
He started doing stints as a guest chef in the Spice Box, the curriculum's fine dining class, about 12 years ago. "I like working with people who have ambition, and I've always enjoyed working with young people, particularly those who want to do what I have done all my life," he said.
"As I'm walking through the kitchen, I can stop and teach techniques as I go. Last week a student was making cole slaw, so I demonstrated for him, 'This is the way I cut my cabbage.' He likes the new technique much better. This is the teaching part that I really enjoy," he said.
But Bevier Café students are taught more than culinary skills; they're taught to manage successful businesses. "We are the only lab on campus that has to be self-sustaining," Reutter said.
"I have a lot of experience in running a successful restaurant, so I can be particularly helpful with the business aspect of it," Ledent said.
"With his expertise, Chef is going to help us write a business plan that will incorporate all the ideas we are generating. His business background is really as important as his culinary skills," said Greg Knott, business manager for the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
"As the semester progresses, you can see that the students are starting to be managers. In management meetings the first week, Chef Ledent and Beth identified problems and suggested solutions. Now the students are giving feedback, saying: Here are the issues and here's how we can resolve them," he said.
Ledent invites all lovers of good food to stop by and become acquainted--or reacquainted--with Bevier café. "Our cuisine is evolving as all cooking is," he said. "We're cooking lighter and healthier now.
"I think new patrons will be pleasantly surprised at both the food and the changing atmosphere in 298 Bevier Hall, and they'll also get a feel for the direction the café is moving. When the transformation is complete, we'll be able to compete successfully with other popular restaurants in town," he said.