Food has always been the centerpiece of just about any society. When ancient cultures would meet and introduce themselves, an exchange of each culture’s delicacies and staple foods was typically at the forefront. Europe’s demand for spices from India and China during the spice trade opened up all kinds of new trade routes and continued the sharing of cultures and goods. As our world continues to become more and more connected, these ingredients that were once incredibly difficult to accrue are now readily available at our grocery stores and in our local restaurants. As our palates continue to evolve so does our demand for the best versions of dishes as old as time. Chefs around the country are challenged by this growing demand, and despite what the cable TV channels and their “celebrity chefs” might show you, a career in the culinary industry isn’t always as rosy as it appears.
“A lot think it’s glamorous, but it can be really brutal work. You need to be strong and also have the mental fortitude to do it,” explained local chef Lesa LeBeau.
Despite all the stress, long hours, and mental and physical challenges, Chef Lesa wouldn’t have it any other way. Growing up just across the border in Creston, British Columbia, she recalls cooking a lot with her Aunt Theo even at a very young age. Putting together recipes passed down through generations stuck with her, and when she went out to eat, she was very interested in everything that was set in front of her.
“My mom would get upset and embarrassed with me when I would stick my face into a dish, but I was always curious about all the tastes and smells,” laughed Lesa.
That curiosity eventually lead Lesa to pack up small-town living in the Northwest and head for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. She enrolled in a culinary academy and completed her courses in two years, having two children along the way as well. Upon graduation, she got a job at a very well-known Hollywood hotspot—2087 American Bistro. The position, however, would test her dedication to the industry as she soon found out that she would be making minimum wage and be the only woman on the crew.
“It was kind of a good-old-boys feel, but I paid my dues cutting onions in the back; after a year I was allowed to make salad,” explained Lesa.
One day the pastry chef abruptly quit, so Lesa’s manager promptly told her that she would be the new chef. Her new position had her coming in at 5am to create crème brulees, cakes and pies, taking a few hours off and then coming back in around 3 or 4 in the afternoon to continue her other obligations.
“I would prep and plate food and stay through close to clean, and usually got home around 2am,” she said.
The grueling long hours would ultimately pay off for Lesa as she began to make connections both with celebrities who came in for lunch and dinner and caterers who would do private parties at their homes.
“Through word of mouth I would get set up working for private parties and ending up getting hooked up with Monroe’s Catering, which does just about all of the Malibu parties,” said Lesa.
She recalls meeting much of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team while catering a party for former team owner Donald Sterling. She recalls Sean Penn as being a gracious host and Smokey Robinson being an absolute gentleman. Being from small Creston, Lesa recalls being a little star struck at first but even more so when A-list celebrities took an interest in her skills.
“I never thought I would be talking to these people and I found it shocking they wanted some of my time as a chef and to learn how I cooked and prepared things,” she said.
Like many industries, companies are built on trust, and in Hollywood that was even more the case. Lesa became a trustworthy caterer who wouldn’t secretly snap photos or talk to gossip magazines about what she saw at the parties and in turn was hired by even more celebrities. She recalls working the Playboy Mansion several times and seeing some very extravagant parties. Non-disclosure agreements prevent her from discussing too many details, but she does recall a very unique atmosphere at one particular party.
“There were girls serving drinks whose outfits were literally sprayed on and you couldn’t tell until they were right up next to you. We also had to hire models to lay still and be covered with sushi rolls and decorated with flowers,” she said.
Lesa did parties for KISS, Barbra Streisand and many other rock stars. She even got to work alongside Wolfgang Puck, catering the Oscars on two separate occasions. As much fun as it was, Lesa longed for the more peaceful and tranquil Northwest, and when her soon-to-be husband asked her to move to Coeur d’Alene, she was all in.
The LeBeaus have called Coeur d’Alene home for almost five years now. Lesa continues to do private catering for events and often for visitors who will come in to town for a week or so. She also does monthly cooking classes at The Culinary Stone specializing in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. During her classes, which usually sell out on the first day, you might learn anything from Russian or Ukrainian to making your own ramen noodles and homemade miso soup. You’ll also occasionally see Lesa on KREM 2 providing cooking demonstrations and recipes as well.
Inspired by watching seasons of Anthony Bourdain, she hopes to soon travel to Asia to get into the street food scene and spices and continue to hone her craft. She wants to get started on a cookbook, as people continue to ask her for it, and is considering opening a small restaurant, though nothing is officially in the works as of now.
Long known for meat and potatoes, Lesa says she is happy to see chefs in North Idaho pushing the envelope and infusing different flavors in their dishes.
“I’ve noticed that even in the five years I’ve been here there’s a lot more than just burgers and brews, a lot more fusion actually.”
For those with a mild addiction to the food channels and the presumed glory of being a chef, Lesa offers some advice before quitting your day job in pursuit of a culinary career.
“Make sure it’s your passion. You need a strong work ethic, a strong backbone and thick skin. You have to be tough, love food and be passionate about what you do,” she said.
If you would like information on catering an event through Lesa, you can reach her at 208.889.1293. You can also visit The Culinary Stone for a list of upcoming cooking classes, also available at CulinaryStone.com.