A Life in Chocolate

By Denise Oliveira

He’s an award-winning chef who, after 40 years in the business, still gets up at 5:30 am to make croissants. Jean-Jacques Bernat, the owner of Provence en Boite in Brooklyn now employs a pastry chef, but he is still intimately involved in the daily workings of his restaurant and pastry shop. He is affable, and speaks in a strong but clear French accent. He spoke with Full Access NYC about his life, his business, and chocolate. At the end, you’ll find a recipe for his Light-As-Air Chocolate Soufflé. For more from Mr. Bernat, you can take his pastry class in Brooklyn on Nov. 22.

What is a typical day like for you?

Bernat headshotI wake up 5:30 am to head to restaurant. I make coffee for me and my employees, and start to bake the croissants, pastries, cakes, macarons, and so on. Then I jump to the kitchen with my team to take care of the bistro side of things, to get ready for breakfast. I head out to buy fish, and to make sure we have everything we need. By 12:30 we’re serving lunch. In the afternoon, I make sure all our pastries are ready. We also supply pastries to other places in Manhattan, so I make sure deliveries are made on time. My afternoon staff arrives around 3 pm, and we get ready for evening service. Sometimes we’re done at 10:30, usually 11 pm. Sometimes I do go home early. It’s a 7-day week, but this is the business and the life of the chef in New York.

How did you become interested in pastries?

My mother owned a 3 star Michelin hotel in Chambéry, in France in the 60s and 70s, and I was born into that. I wasn’t a great student, so when I was 14 my mom sent me to culinary school. Afterward I worked at a restaurant in Chambéry to get my certificate to be a waiter. Then I wanted to learn pastries, so my boss sent me to Bernachon, in Lyon. That was in 1976, and I stayed there four and a half years. Then I went to work with the Bocuse family. When you’re learning from world-famous chefs, it’s always very interesting. We were making everything from scratch at that time: Almond flour, preserves, and so on. My boss in Lyon still makes his own chocolate. That’s why I stayed there so long. I had a fantastique time.

Why did you move to the United States?

I came here in 1996, after I went through a divorce in France. I found a job here, so I came. I didn’t speak a word of English. I met my wife Leslie three weeks after I got here. Eighteen years later we’re married with two kids. When I arrived I worked at Eli Zabar, and as the executive pastry chef at Citarella.

Do you make your own chocolate?

No. We only use only Valrhona chocolate. It’s very expensive, but it’s the best chocolate you can get, and Valrhona has been working for so long with the pastry chefs in France. When I opened my first store in 1981 in France, the first chocolate I chose was Varlhona. Their factory was about 15 miles from my store, so it it was easy to get the chocolate. It was great, every day when I needed something I’d call the master chocolatier.

What’s the hardest thing about making pastries?

It’s all difficult, because you’re using so many ingredients. It’s a science compared to the kitchen, you have to measure everything so carefully. It takes a lot of time and patience to do that. I’ve very precise. I love it.

What’s the most important skill a baker could have?

To be passionate, to love what you do, to not get bored. Because if you get bored, that’s when you lose your patience and love. After 40 years, there’s never a day when I’m not happy to do this.

Some people like to bake to relax, but baking is your job. So what do you do to relax?

Yesterday, for example, my whole family took the day off because the kids had a school holiday. We took the car and went to the water in Sheepshead Bay and walked on the beach. I didn’t answer the phone, I didn’t talk to anybody. Sometimes we go upstate to see the country. It’s good to have days just for family.

When you go out to eat, where do you go?

River Café, it has a nice environment, nice people. Of course we like Jean-Georges, and La Bonne Soupe. But some days it’s better to stay home and have lunch with the family.

For Mr. Bernat’s”Light-As-Air Chocolate Soufflé” recipe, please click here.

1 reply »

  1. i enjoyed your interview with chef Bernat. If I lived closer I would take his class on 11/22. The next time I’m in the city I will definitely eat at his restaurant.

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