I grew up in a household that was, and still is, passionate about food. For us, food meant the unity of family. It was there through times of laughter, heartache, and of course those creative moments when we craved something that was amazing. However, food wasn’t just about sustenance—it was something much deeper than that. It became spiritual.
“Growing up as a child, food was very rewarding for us,” my mother, Jean Jacquet, stated as she stared off into her childhood memory as if it were physically in the room with her.
Jean was a private chef and caterer prior to being diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. From a very young age she knew that cooking was her passion, as she saw the joy it could bring to the people she served. From as early as four years old, Jean always found herself gravitating towards the kitchen. “One day I was hungry as a child—and I’ll always remember this,” she recalls. “I was four years old and my mom left some pork chops on the stove to go gossip with the neighbor. I went to the stove, and the pork chops were cooking, so I was flipping them over and stuff. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing as far as flipping the pork chops over. When [my mother] came in her eyes got all big and she hurried up and grabbed me away from the stove. By that time the pork chops were already done.”
Jean had begun to learn the basics of cooking by watching her mother and grandmother cook. It wasn’t until she was about nine years old that she created her first successful dish. “My mom had to get a job and go to work, and so she didn’t make anything and we didn’t have any leftovers. So I went and got some rice because I remember I used to watch her cook it. I washed it, put it on the stove, and then turned the stove off to let it steam. I went to go watch TV. By that time, my mind had gotten off of how hungry I was, and I totally forgot about the pot of rice. When [my mother] came home she looked on the stove and saw the pot of rice and she said, ‘Who been in the kitchen cooking?’ I got scared because I thought she was going to whoop me because I used to always get in trouble for going to the stove and trying to cook,” Jean laughed. “She looked at the rice and tasted it and asked again who made it. I couldn’t lie because I knew I would get a whooping for lying, so I told her I made it since I was hungry. I started crying so she knew I was hungry and wouldn’t whoop me and she said ‘Baby, this is the best pot of rice I ever tasted!’”
Struggling with dyslexia, Jean often had trouble with reading and spelling. “I remember one time we were at [my mother’s] friend’s house, and her friend was trying to make me read a book, but I couldn’t read it. So she told me I wouldn’t be anything and my mom was just letting her talk bad about me that I couldn’t read good at my age. So when the woman left out of the kitchen, my mom leaned over to me and said, ‘That’s okay. She’s a fifty-two-year-old woman and she doesn’t even know how to cook a pot of rice. You’re only nine and you can cook a pot of rice.’ That made me feel good.”
Jean’s grandmother was a housekeeper and a cook for wealthy professionals in Los Angeles, California. She often took Jean along with her to work, which exposed Jean to the world of catering. “[My grandmother] was very good in what she did. My mother cooked good, although she was a lazy cook. She didn’t really teach me much about cooking. I just watched her cook. I learned a lot of my cooking from watching other people cook. I just had that gift in me.” At the parties, Jean would assist in preparing the food and serving it. “We catered for privileged individuals. At first, they would look down on us while we were preparing and serving, but once they ate what we made, they wanted to socialize with us.” One of the infamous dishes she created was a seafood pâté. “I remember this lady loved the recipe so much that she tried to force me to tell her how to make it. When I didn’t, she went to the host of the party and literally threw a fit that I wouldn’t give her the recipe. The host offered to pay me for the recipe but I said, ‘Nope!’ My grandmother always taught me to keep my recipes to myself. You never knew if someone was going to take your creation and then get famous off of it without giving credit where it was due.”
When Jean was approximately eighteen years of age, her grandmother passed away from stage IV breast cancer. It was during this time that Jean began to really experiment in her cooking to try to master her grandmother’s untold recipes. “She never wanted us in the kitchen when she cooked. I remember she used to kick everybody out even when I used to ask her, you know, if I could watch her cook because I liked all of her dishes. She was very secretive in her cooking because she was always so scared that someone would steal her recipes.”
It was through the hard times that Jean turned to the comfort of her kitchen and her religion. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and undergoing chemotherapy, Jean briefly lost her ability to sense what she was tasting. “Everything tasted disgusting. All I could taste was the chemo. The smell of food made me feel sick, and I didn’t want to eat. But food was very important to me. I just [saw] how people forgot about their differences when they came together. When my mom and grandma would have parties, it was just happiness. Every time I was around food [there] was happiness, joy and celebration. That’s what I used when I cooked food for my family and for my children even through cancer. For my kids, to make them happy, I would go to the kitchen. They were going through so much, so I would try to cook something that I knew they would like to let them know I was a survivor and that I was always going to be there for them and with them. Cooking was such a healing process for me through my cancer. I used it to get my mind off of the cancer, and it helped me know I was going to survive it.”
After her diagnosis, Jean began to incorporate more “live” foods into her southern cuisine. She also began to observe kosher laws which invited her to experiment with different ways to prepare and revamp her dishes. “All throughout the bible you can find references to food—what foods are clean and what foods we should refrain from eating . . . I use those scriptures in my cooking for healing purposes—for bringing people together with laughter and joy.”
“I cook many dishes that I feel [are] unique from Asian, African, Middle Eastern and French. I want to incorporate different seasonings and herbs—it’s just a joy. To try it on someone and see the delight in their faces. It just makes me happy. We can take one recipe and make multiple recipes from that one dish. That’s what I focus on when I’m cooking.” One of the dishes I’ve watched her re-create is kosher gumbo. It took her one shot at re-creating this dish in all of its seasoned perfection. By experimentation, she was able to create a consistent gumbo roux with kosher meats prepared in the way one would prepare traditional gumbo. With that basic roux, we were able to branch out and create new dishes together.
“I cook all types of food, but my favorite is southern food. The way the food smells—your neighbors can know what you’re cooking. They’ll stop to ask what you’re cooking, and they’ll ask if you can send them a bowl! I just enjoy what I do.”
My mother opened my mind to understand that you could create anything in the kitchen with trial and error. If something didn’t come out the way you wanted it to, determine what you believe is missing and try again. It’s a simple lesson you can apply to all situations in life. As frustrating as it may be to ruin a basic pot of rice, or to even go through a heartbreaking situation, you have to find a solution rather than give up. Jean encourages others who are going through hard times to seek guidance through Yeshua Mashiach as well as learn to enjoy the things that they are passionate about. “Just put a fork in it,” she giggled.