Des Moines has a culinary sister city in France, and these chefs visited for a contest
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The last time Des Moines chef and restaurateur Michael LaValle was in France was during the November 2015 Paris attacks.
"They shut the borders to the entire country and we were out to dinner with chefs," LaValle said. "I remember Kevin Cooney interviewing me on my phone."
But LaValle was back in France this week for the Cuisiniers de la Loire Trophy Contest at the Haut-Forez Catering Vocational School in Loire Valley hosted on Tuesday by the Loire Valley Chef's Association.
The Loire Valley Cuisinaires is a cooking competition that takes place in Saint-Étienne, France — the culinary sister city of Des Moines.
Twelve regional student chefs are given ingredients to create a main dish and a dessert, writing and developing the recipes and preparing them in front of a panel of judges (including LaValle — no pressure) at Haut-Forez Catering Vocational School.
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The ingredients were chicken, lentils, cow's milk cheese and an aromatic liqueur.
This is LaValle's 2nd year attending the event that's dear to his heart with a team of culinary representatives from Des Moines, but it's the 35th year for the chef exchange between the Association of Cooks of the Loire and the kitchen department of DMACC.
"It's right out of Lyon, to me the culinary center of my little universe," LaValle said. "And it brings French culture to Des Moines, so this is a nice new twist to it."
LaValle was accompanied by a Des Moines delegation of 10 well-known metro chefs including close friend chef Robert Anderson, former director of the Iowa Culinary Institute of DMACC.
Other fellow judges included executive chef Matt Uitermarkt of the Des Moines Embassy Club; chef and owner of Trellis at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Lisa Lavalle, who is also Michael LaValle's wife and business partner; executive chef Randall Brown and general manager Michael Bailey of Des Moines Embassy Club West.
"It started out with chefs staying in our homes when they came to visit," LaValle said. "My three daughters never knew who was going to be sitting at the kitchen table. I've had chefs from Italy, China, Spain come to stay at my home and work with me."
But during this trip, LaValle and crew stayed in the home of French chef Jean Pierre Tholoniat, president of the association of Cuisiniers de la Loire who came to Des Moines in the first year and stayed with LaValle.
The first place winner of the competition was Gaspard Roumy from Alsace, 20, in his first year at CFA Roannais. Second place went to Caesar Caillat in his first year at the Professional College of Verrières-en-Forez.
This year, like every year for 18 years, LaValle will host the student chef winners of the culinary competition in Des Moines for two weeks in November when they will re-create their winning recipes, do cooking demonstrations and teach cooking classes around the metro.
"No visit to Des Moines by a French chef would be complete without a visit to DMACC," LaValle said. LaValle said for the last two years, the events were called Pork and Pinot.
A few days before the competition on March 31, LaValle sponsored a reception with the president of the Loire Valley Chef's Association for all of the previous years' winners at La Grignotiere restaurant near Feurs about 30 miles from Saint-Étienne, owned by chefs Jerome and Sandree Pelossier
While there, the Des Moines delegation dined their way around the area, touring markets and food production facilities — including a local cattle fair.
"I've always wanted us to have the community relationship these guys have," LaValle said. "It's nothing for French chefs of a community to get together to throw a fundraiser or a blood drive while feeding people good food. They help each other out."
Saint-Étienne and Des Moines have been sending chefs back and forth for collaboration and culinary diplomacy for many years now.
And LaValle has watched as these students have landed executive chef positions or started their restaurants and catering companies of their own in France. They've been to Des Moines to stay with LaValle and have plaques from Iowa Culinary Institute posted in their dining spaces.
"None of this would've happened without DMACC," LaValle said. "Robert Anderson, Maura Nelson and the DMACC people started this. They have their chef exchange every January. We just took this offshoot of it and co-sponsored it with DMACC."
LaValle said in France, children can decide as early as age 14 to begin the educational and training journey in professional schools called CFAs.
LaValle remembers Des Moines in the 1970s as being an era of continental and classic European cuisine. "I've always been about internationalism and food and I've been trying for 40 years to get Iowa on the world food map." Des Moines now has culinary sister relationships with cities in China, Itlay, France and Spain.
LaValle has even taken a group of Embassy Club chefs to cook for Xi Jinping, President of China
Since then, LaValle has taken from the European model of restaurants during the transition when chefs were becoming much more visible as the star of the show with open kitchens and celebrity status.
LaValle said he was one of the first chefs in Des Moines to own a restaurant in 1984 — LaVal's at 112 Fifth St. in West Des Moines. And now, with celebrity chefs taking the spotlight, LaValle said the level of professionalism has diminished.
"All the celebrity stuff is great, but show me your dining room tonight," LaValle said. "Who's in there and how much are people enjoying dining there? That's the test for me."