Wearing white chef’s jackets and toques, about 30 men are bustling about the professional kitchen. Under the guidance of a professional chef, they work in teams — elbowing through the door with octopus lightly charred from an outdoor fire, pulling pork loin from a sous vide bath, chopping and dicing and plating and laughing.
Soon they’ll be chatting together around round tables in the dining hall, catching up on each others’ lives while enjoying five courses with glasses of matching wines. It’s the second Monday night of the month — time for a meeting of Les Marmitons.
The North American men’s cooking club Les Marmitons was founded about 40 years ago in Montreal, according to Efrain Raices, president of one of two New Jersey chapters. This one meets meets once a month in Edison in the dining hall of Kiddie Keep Well Camp.
The club is where men who love to cook can learn hands-on from some of the best chefs, but it’s also a place for male camaraderie, so while women sometimes serve as guest chefs, they can’t become members. The chapter has helped some create their own clubs instead, Raices said.
“Our motto is ‘friendship to food.’ Food is secondary,” Raices said. “But not really.”
No experience is required to cook with Les Marmitons, which is French for “kitchen assistants.”
“The greatest thing about the guys here, there are no know-it-alls,” said Jay DiDomenico, a member of the club for more than 10 years. “There’s a wide range of abilities behind the stove. There are guys who can’t boil water yet and some guys who can impress the pants off of you.”
Each month a different unpaid professional chef creates a menu and leads the chapter of Les Marmitons through preparing four or five courses in teams. First, a handful of members shop for the food and wine. Members contribute $65 a month to cover costs.
In the past, this chapter has hosted some very well-known chefs, including David Drake and Daisy Martinez*, among others, Raices said. This month, it was chef Anthony Bucco of Felina in Ridgewood.
Bucco is revered by the members, but they’re comfortable enough to chat with him, too. That night, he complimented them when a dish went right and didn’t chide them for some disappointing gnocchi, which resembled mashed potatoes a bit more than dumplings.
“I think the first attempt to do anything is always the hardest,” Bucco told the group.
The gnocchi weren’t holding together like the chef planned, so he scrapped the idea of searing them and instead demonstrated how to improvise.
“You go into survival mode in the kitchen,” Buuco said to the entire club after they had eaten the dish. “At the end of the day there are 31 hungry people. Thirty-one?”
Someone says “thirty-two.”
“Thirty-two hungry people,” he corrects himself. “We have to put something in front of them. So again, path of least resistance. We are not heroes. We are here to service the public. [In a] restaurant, this would never hit the menu. Eighty-six it. Here, we’re feeding everybody, so we figure out how to do that. No texture means they’re perfect in a broth.”
It was one of many lessons learned on a Monday night by Andre Chabanel, who joined the group in 2007.
“Before I came here, I knew how to do a dinner party,” he explained. Now he knows how to prepare dishes in advance, making it possible to cook for much larger groups.
“How are you going to keep it all hot? How are you going to keep the piece of meat you cooked at the right temperature?” Chabanel asked. That’s the best lesson Les Marmitons has taught him, he said.
That knowledge is put to the test a few times a year, including the club's annual fundraiser for Kiddie Keep Well Camp, the camp for underprivileged kids whose dining hall it uses for its monthly meetings. The chapter’s multi-course wine-pairing dinners raised more than $20,000 for the camp over the last two years, according to Raices.
“Not only do we kick butt when we cook, but we also give back to the community,” he said.
Next month, they’ll serve a special meal for their significant others in honor of Valentine’s Day, a thank-you for all the of nights they spend away with their cooking buddies.
“All the other months, we don’t cook to impress each other, we don’t cook to show off,” said DiDomenico. “But Valentine’s Day, we just want the wives to be tickled pink over what we’re doing.”
To learn about the Cranford chapter, click here.
Watch a video about Le Marmitons:
Read more on NJ Flavor:
Got a story you'd like to see on NJ Flavor? Email Jackie Lieberman at email@example.com.
*The names of the guest chefs have been corrected from an earlier version.