L’Academie de Cuisine: On a Mission to Turn Good Cooks into Great Chefs

Chef François Dionot remembers the exact moment he realized a culinary career was the only choice for him. “It was like a dream,” recalls Dionot. “It was the first time my parents had taken me to a fancy restaurant with a tablecloth and all the silverware and glasses. The owner was a friend of my parents and she was this very beautiful, tall woman, and she drove my favorite sports car.”
 
Dionot’s dream never wavered as the years passed. He considers himself lucky enough to have been sent to study at the prestigious Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland, moving on to study with some of the best chefs in the industry. It was 1976, however, that Dionot deems one of his most memorable years; it was the year he launched L’Academie de Cuisine (LAC), the premier academy of culinary and pastry arts, located in the Washington, D.C. region.
 
“In March of 1976 I became an American citizen, in June I opened LAC, and in October I married my wife,” explains Dionot. Before starting the school, Dionot spent years working in the hotel industry, only to find it too cutthroat, so he decided to go back to his first love of cooking. Dionot then spent six years working on all sides of the restaurant business, both in the kitchen and in the front of the house, gaining the valuable managerial experience and intrapersonal skills he brings to LAC today. Along the way, Dionot realized the extreme disparity between the availability of short-order cooks and classically trained chefs in the industry, which planted in him the idea to start his own cooking school.
 
Working with a financial partner and longtime friend, Dionot set out to start one of the first culinary schools in the country aimed at training professionals who already have some degree of college level work completed. A student’s prior work experience and education were critical to the success of the school and Dionot asserts that it allows the school to focus solely on advancing a student’s pursuits, sidestepping the peripheral courses in management, etc. required at some types of institution. However, LAC is approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission as an independent secondary educational facility, and through a partnership with Montgomery College, LAC can offer a student credits toward a certificate in Hospitality Management.
 
Strict and Stringent Training
LAC runs two professional programs, in addition to offering recreational cooking classes. One course is culinary arts and the other for pastry, with discipline, self-reliance and classic French cooking techniques at the core of the curriculum. Students are taught in three phases, with the first phase focusing on technique, equipment and learning to cook. Taste, flavor and presentation are the focus of the second phase, and during the final phase students begin an externship, working a minimum of 35 hours per week in real restaurants, bakeries and hotels.
 
“During the externship, our two mottos are ‘don’t quit’ and ‘don’t get fired,’” explains Dionot. “In the classroom, we never pressure the students for timing, but during the externship students are working in fine dining establishments and it gives them the speed and experience that they need to have. You can’t abandon a job if you want to be the best.”
 
For over 35 years LAC has continued to churn out the best graduates in the industry, with alumni being in high demand and often of high notoriety. This year alone two of LAC’s alumni were nominated for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award, essentially the Oscars for chefs, ultimately walking away with the award for Best Pastry Chef, which was awarded to Chef Alison Pinkerton (Class of ’06). LAC also tallies “Top Chef” season five finalist and audience favorite Carla Hall as an alumnus (in Culinary Arts 1996), among many more professionals working in top hotels and industry media.
 
It’s no surprise LAC graduates receive accolades and recognition for maintaining consistency under pressure, as Dionot maintains an uncompromising code of decorum and an intensive admissions process that requires a visit at the school, so that no prospective student applies with misgivings of the reality of the program.
 
“We refuse to be an institution that only asks for a signature and tuition. We teach them to cook, that’s granted, but we are a very demanding program with a strict attendance policy, strict dress code enforcement, and lots of testing and recipe writing along the way to instill in each student the responsibility, and the discipline they will need,” affirms Dionot. “Before they can even start classes, students are required to sign a document asserting that they have read the school policy handbook and that they will abide by it, because if a student does not want to do what is expected of him or her, that student will not stay in the program.”
 
Only Top Bananas
LAC is a tightly run ship, but in exchange students receive an education that was rated as one of the Top 10 in the nation, according to an independent survey of leading industry professionals. Culinary schools across the country are continually expanding, both in size and in curriculum, but LAC remains a stalwart of classic and comprehensive cooking technique in a small classroom environment. With an average class size of 25, overseen by two teachers and a teaching assistant, the student-to-teacher ratio is enviable. This enables students to acquire skills along the way that are meant to be the building blocks for an individual style of cooking that will develop over the course of many years.
 
“There is a new Asian cuisine that is very much in fashion these days, but we always like to say that cooking is a lot like fashion: Things come and go,” admits Dionot. “We are probably the dinosaur of cooking, but this is who we are. There are many schools that have stopped teaching things like pastillage, but these skills always come back into fashion. Lamb shank used to be very hard to find, but these days it’s the most expensive thing to buy in winter because everyone wants to have it.” In teaching classic cooking techniques, LAC prepares students to make a lifetime out of their career, and not just to be a flash in the pan.
 
Dionot keeps his plate full assuring students get the opportunity to work with only the highest quality ingredients. Producing the best and brightest culinary talents year after year, however, comes at certain costs. Inflating trucking and transportation expenses have forced Dionot to confront the fact that high-quality produce is both harder to get and rising in cost. However, his diligent supervision ensures the students get what they need to work with.
 
“Back when trucking was more affordable, we could order whole sides of beef directly from the purveyors, but these days everything is being deboned and vacuum-packed and prepared to cut down on shipping weight. The real tragedy is that we use those bones to make beautiful sauces and stock, instead of a beurre blanc or hollandaise that is much more expensive to produce,” says Dionot. This problem is partially solved by LAC sourcing products from multiple suppliers at all times, essentially pitting one supplier against the other to ensure that the prices don’t balloon and the quality of the product does not decline as contracts are renewed.
 
Quality Control at Every Step
Dionot remains a committed professional and insists on preserving control over every aspect of the school even after almost four decades. “I’m 66 now and I am truly happy. I continue to work as hard as I do because I love what I do,” says Dionot. “These days though, I only do what I want to do so I delegate the things that used to feel like work to me to my staff, even though it’s very difficult for me to relinquish control over anything, so I can continue to teach five classes a week. One of my insurance agents a long time ago made me realize that even though I was doing everything right, if something had happened to me, the school couldn’t keep going.”
 
Following this realization Dionot assembled a team of employees capable of putting him at ease, including an attorney, a financial advisor and an insurance agent. Dionot spends more of his time overseeing the professional school in Gaithersburg, Md., while his daughter and wife look after the recreational cooking school in Bethesda, Md. It might appear that Dionot is taking more of a backseat than he has in the past, but instead he is dedicating increased time to giving back to the culinary community, and the community at large, whenever possible.
 
As a Board member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs and a president and founding member of the International Association for Culinary Professionals (IACP), as well as the proud father of three children, Dionot remains busy. Aside from making preparations for the hors d'oeuvres that will be served at his son’s engagement party, Dionot attends regular conventions at the IACP, keeping the school abreast of international trends and collaborating with other Chef Rottiseurs on food and wine pairings. He also maintains a tradition of providing various charity fundraisers with a donation dinner for 10 prepared by himself and LAC students.
 
Dionot’s commitment to quality control has meant LAC has not entertained options for expansion, but this has only strengthened Dionot’s focus on upholding the school’s reputation and producing the finest graduates. “At one point we were looking into opening up a location abroad, but  it was not for us. It would have been very prestigious and I’m sure it would have been great, but I want control over everything,” says Dionot. “My interest is not in being a millionaire. I just want to grow the school to be the best it can be.”
 
Even as culinary trends come and go, LAC has stood the test of time, a beacon of classical cooking technique producing versatile, confident and disciplined chefs with ambition and passion for what they do. If the last 35 years are any indication, L’Academie de Cuisine and its instructors’ gastronomic enthusiasm will continue to see passionate graduates top another few rounds of James Beard Awards.