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Bethesda's Culinary Dynasty

L'Academie de Cuisine completes renovation.

When Francois Dionot first opened the doors of L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda 35 years ago, he was responding to a need—the need the region had for a professional cooking school. Dionot founded his school in a quirky building on the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Wilson Lane where he began teaching recreational cooking classes. Two years later, the school gained accreditation and began offering a professional diploma in culinary and pastry arts. Today, L'Academie is ranked in the top 10 Best Culinary Schools in North America.

A native of France, Dionot was only 32 years old when he started L'Academie. He steadily grew his school into a nationally recognized laboratory for cooks who go on to open restaurants, shops, and catering companies; and even land on television competitions like Food Network Star or Bravo's Top Chef.

The circle has come around for the Dionot family. In 2011, Francois’ daughter Clarice Dionot, now 32, completed the renovation of their Bethesda location. The new space includes two hands-on kitchens and one demonstration kitchen.  Clarice explained the process of improving the space and shared her thoughts on how L’Academie de Cuisine has evolved over the years:

Patch: How does the story begin?

CD: Thirty-five years ago my father opened the business. It started off first with the demonstration kitchen. There was a pastry shop. The upstairs was the hands-on kitchen. At the same time they were developing the professional programs. The accrediting agency requires you to be in business two years before you can develop a professional program and get it accredited. It was a two year practique (lecture and hands on). I jumped on board 8 years ago as an admissions representative after I studied in France for a year and a half. I returned and became the event coordinator.

Now I’m the manager of recreational cooking classes--camps, events, adult general classes, teen and kid classes--beginner to intense, fun and entertaining, you name it we’ve got it.

Patch: What inspired the renovation?

CD:  After 35 years of using a building, even a regular house needs to renovate. Our kitchens were being used in excess, so I guess it was an ongoing discussion. In 1994, we separated professional and recreational when we opened up our Gaithersburg location {for the professional school}. We expanded there in 2004 and doubled the size there from 7,000 ft to 15,000 sq feet.  There are two demos, two culinary and two pastry kitchens, offices, storage facilities, a conference room, library and student lockers. The professional school operates 4 days a week, all day.

Drawing up plans with architects, and engineers for this building, we found codes had changed in 35 years. What you learn is codes are implemented by people who are overseeing your project and are subject to interpretation. It’s important to know that I stayed positive, but every step of the way we ran into something unexpected. We applied for a liquor license, but we are not a restaurant or a country club. There was no license for culinary schools. We worked our way through it, and the county was amazingly helpful. They put together a law and passed it and now there’s a culinary school license for liquor. That was a breakthrough.

Patch: What was your goal during the construction?

CD: We wanted to create a school for home cooks to learn. We partnered with Viking—this equipment looks professional, but they’re actually the high-end home-line of Viking. So everything in our kitchens can be found in your home; our cooks can try and see what they like.

There were a lot of restrictions, but we accomplished our goal. We have a professional kitchen duct system. We have smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinkler system. Public records indicated that the building was built in 1937, but we don’t have records any earlier than 1950. It was interesting learning the history of the building and taking walls down and finding half stairwells. The building is sound, and we rebuilt it to feel like it’s one building now. It’s an interesting triangle--each section is different. When my father took it over it was a waffle shop.

Patch: Will the renovation allow you to increase the number of classes?

CD: Yes. We have two hands-on kitchens and one demo, so we can have three classes going on at one time.

Patch:  What classes are most popular?

CD:  More people like to do hands-on. They watch, and they do. It’s more fun when you’re interacting with other people. You will learn something in every class, but learn more in demo class because the instructors can share more information. Some people just want to sit and watch, enjoy and taste everything. Then they go home and make it themselves. ..see it, hear it, smell it and then eat it.

Patch:  What kinds of classes do you offer here?

CD:  We have classes in different categories. Everything is a beginner class unless it says it’s intermediate or advanced. Whatever techniques are needed to accomplish a menu, they will learn in that class. There’s menu driven classes and technique driven classes. The latter are extremely structured around technique and everything {you cook} is geared around that technique.

In both you learn time management---how long to cook and when you want it ready. We have baking--pastry, pies, cakes, chocolates, bread, cookies. We have couple’s classes, and they work together. It’s the only one we guarantee you’ll work with the one you signed up with. If you come with a person depending on the type of class, sometimes you’re working in pairs, or groups of three, or four.

In some bigger classes, where the menu is very large, you’ll work on a couple of dishes to share with the entire class. For example, in our paella class we make eight different types of paella. The concept is the same--you’re making paella. The technique is the same, but the ingredients are different. So at the end, you can taste all the different paellas. This allows people to see the variety and they don’t have to eat one if they don’t like it.

Patch:  Did your father ever imagine he would be leading this dynasty?

CD:  My father went to school in Switzerland, the number one hotel management cooking school in the world. He came here and had many jobs in the industry. I asked him, ‘What made you start a school?’ He said while he was working, the chef, the maitre D or the managers would come and ask him to teach the staff: ‘Can you teach the chefs this station, can you teach the front of the house?’

My father is a phenomenal instructor. He is technique driven, very precise, a perfectionist. Originally when he came here to work, he always planned to go back to France, but I guess he liked it better here. He worked on the East Coast from D.C. to New York, and he saw this opportunity. There wasn’t a school. There was the Cordon Bleu in Paris, there was Lausanne in Switzerland, there was a school in Germany, but here in D.C. there was nothing. He saw an opportunity, and he took it.

It’s said in the industry ‘You have to have the passion, you have to have the bug, or you’re not going to make it.’ He’s always had it and he still teaches every day.

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