Laurent Brazier has found his bliss — surrounded by wine bottles, baguettes and an upgraded kitchen at his new cooking school, La Cuisine Culinary Arts in South Coast Plaza.
"Here we are," the executive chef announced during a break last Wednesday, gesturing to the spotlessly clean stainless-steel kitchen and tables dressed in white linen. Brazier was just as spotlessly dressed in his traditional double-breasted white jacket and black pants, although this casual afternoon, he was humble enough not to wear the tall, brimless hat that sometimes indicates a high-ranking chef.
"We used to have a cheese shop, but I'm working on that," he said in his distinct French accent. "One thing at a time."
As executive chef instructor for La Cuisine Culinary Arts, Brazier teaches all levels of cooking classes from a crash course ("It's a best-seller where you get really good skills") to the intensive six-month Professional Chef Program. Last week, the chef had spent an hour showing his class the basic techniques for everyday Italian cuisine.
"I have the bug of always being busy and being interested in a lot of things," he said.
Aside from teaching with his staff of 11 chef instructors, Brazier serves lunch at La Cuisine's Cafe from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., offering sandwiches, salads, soups and desserts.
"The cafe has a nice menu," he said of the items, which range from a Gruyere sandwich with Bechamel sauce to a Kobe beef burger served on a ciabatta bun.
"People are starting to ask us for a private lunch," he said. "Some want a casual night, while others want a formal night."
His recent grand opening of cooking classes, catering and the cafe comes after saying farewell to Laguna Culinary Arts. As executive chef, he had joined founder Nancy Milby in creating the wine and food mecca in Laguna Canyon over the past decade.
"I decided to retire the school," Brazier said. "I had the option to renew, but I was wanting to start my own school under my name with a little more foot traffic."
Lack of foot traffic was a major factor in Milby and Brazier's move out of Laguna. "We had a cute place in Laguna," Brazier said, "but people couldn't find us. It was a difficult location."
He doesn't have that problem today.
"We're at South Coast Plaza in a more well-known place," he said. "You're going to be at South Coast Plaza some time in the month."
Brazier came across the Macy's Home Store location, where Food Network celebrity chefs Cat Cora and Marcus Samuelsson once served up menus at the department store's Signature Kitchen. "It was almost a cafeteria," he said with a wince.
"I looked at the place, and the owners said to me, if I could make it better, I could have it," he said. "I said, 'I know I can make it better.'"
He glanced at the reception desk.
"I'm running out of brochures," he said with a grin.
"We are a small company with a nice touch," Brazier continued. "I'm here and you can always ask for me. We make it very personal."
And personal includes family. His father, Maurice Brazier, is an acclaimed chef who was awarded the title of Commandeur du Merit National from the president of France for his expertise in French cuisine. He has also been appointed to one of only 100 seats of the Acadamie Culinaire de France. Today, father and son work together on the school's professional chef program. His impact was profound on Brazier.
"He being a chef made me want to be a chef," Brazier said. But for years, Brazier considered becoming a pianist with his six years of formal training. "I thought I could do both, cooking and playing the piano," he said. "But I'm happy to be a chef, but happier being an instructor. I've done it all."