#MondayMotivation: Started From The Bottom Now We're Here

How Chef Yvan Lemoine's love for food transcended circumstance.

March 6, 2017 ● 3 min read

I didn’t speak the language when I came to America.  

I’m from Venezuela, [and] my mom was a single parent. We didn’t have any money, so we stayed with my aunt and uncle until we got our own place. [Then] my mom met my stepdad and we moved in with him. He was a waiter, so he wasn’t making much money at the time. My mom got pregnant — twice — so we found ourselves four kids supported on a single income. I remember we would go to church for food, we applied for food stamps. A lot of the time we just had to depend on the kindness of strangers to help us out. I still remember befriending people just in the hopes that they’d get me something to eat.   

But what I really loved was entertaining people. Whenever my mom’s friends would come over I would make them whatever we had — even if it was a little bit of toast. I always had that instinct to make sure people were taken care of.

Fast forward to 15, I wasn’t doing great in school. I was hyperactive. My mom made the choice to send me to Long Island City High School because it had the first culinary program in the city. We had to beg my way in, but eventually, it worked. At first, we were just learning to make chocolate chip cookies, and then this very militant, former restaurant owner came in and taught us how to make coq au vin and all these other beautiful classic French dishes. In Venezuela, we didn’t have any of that, so I was enamored. My teacher saw my affinity for cooking, and got me my first restaurant job, at the French fine dining institution of the time, La Caravelle. I was making soufflés to order. I was roasting whole ducks. It was like Disneyland. My hyperactivity was finally an asset.  

I wanted to try other things, so I interviewed at Jacque Torres’ Le Cirque 2000 and got a job in pastry. Around that time I was having trouble at home. My mom remarried, and my new stepdad was beating the crap out of all of us. I kept running away from home. I ended up skipping my shift a few times, and so Jacque Torres sat me down and fired me. I remember sitting in the bathroom after that happened and bawling.  

I bounced back, eventually — I got jobs working for Rocco Dispirito’s place, Union Pacific, I helped to open a restaurant called Fleur De Sel, I tried out mixology. I ended up writing a book called Comida de USA, which introduced simple American recipes to Spanish speaking households like the one I grew up in. 
I did a stint on Food Network Star, and got to the finals. I thought I wanted to have a show, but that experience burst my bubble; you just can’t capture the spark and romance of cooking into a rehearsed environment.

So, I went back to restaurants for a while, and eventually got a full ride to study at the Institute Paul Bocuse in Lyon. After dreaming my whole life [of going] to France, but not being able to leave the country because I was an immigrant, I finally got my shot. When I came back, the stars aligned — my friends were opening a restaurant called Union Fare, and they asked me to be the executive chef.  

I’m running a kitchen now, but I somehow don’t feel accomplished at all. There is still so much to learn and do. Every day is still difficult, every day I am trying to do the best that I can with the opportunities that I have. In this day and age, I live in fear that I could be deported tomorrow. I’m just a resident, I’m not a citizen, and I see really talented individuals come through our door with these same fears.  

Being a chef, as much as people glamorize it, is a dirty job. You’re still scrubbing things, you’re always tired. Every once in a while you get to put on a fresh chef coat and say hello to some people in the dining room, but there’s always grunt work. The best thing I can do is to surround myself with extraordinary people who are doing just what I’m doing: trying to make a difference and earn their place in this land.         

As told to Priya Krishna by Yvan Lemoine | Original photograph via Lily Wokin