It was 10 years ago Blandine Brutel moved to the U.S. from Lyon, in the southeast of France. Her husband, an engineer, had found a job in Colorado Springs and, with three kids in tow, the family relocated across the pond.
“We wanted to experience something in the United States,” Brutel said.
Brutel is the owner and founder of the French Kitchen Culinary Center, a four-in-one concept that wraps together a cooking school, bakery, café and small culinary boutique. The business opened less than a year ago, and the concept has been popular with both old acquaintances and new customers alike.
Brutel didn’t move to the U.S. with any professional cooking experience. She was, in fact, teaching English at private schools in France.
“I didn’t like the school system,” she said. “When we moved here, I tried to be a French teacher, instead of English. It didn’t work out. That’s when I discovered food.”
After having a conversation with a sibling about personal chefs, Brutel decided to give it a try.
“My sister told me about chefs going to people’s homes and that that was the big thing. I was trying to find my path in life,” Brutel said. “I started [making] crêpes in peoples homes. That’s one of my passions, and it took over. I went to garages and schools and dental offices — wherever I was called to make crêpes.”
In 2010, Brutel opened a crêperie, Wholly Crêpe, in Chapel Hills Mall.
“That lasted four months. But it was a really good bad experience — a learning experience that helped me do better the next time.”
Brutel said she wasn’t prepared to open the business and found the product was a bit “high-end” for the location.
She took a break from cooking professionally for a while, but would bring food to parties and was always asked for recipes.
“That’s what led to my cooking class business,” she said. “I thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to teach them!’”
Brutel began cooking classes out of her home in 2012.
“That boomed,” she said. “I did five years in my home and after four and a half, I had more ideas; people wanted more.
“People would take classes but wanted me to make things, like cakes. ‘I don’t want to make it,’ they’d say. ‘Can you make it?’”
Brutel was getting requests for larger sessions and catering services and kids classes and…
“It was growing too much,” she said.
Links and parties
The French Kitchen Culinary Center occupies a corner space in a strip mall on North Academy Boulevard. The former quilt shop now smells of fresh-baked breads, Illy coffee and French pastries. Brutel occupied the space last June and said business has been steadily growing since.
“The idea was everything is linked,” she said. “If you cook here and use a tool you like, you can buy it here. If there’s a tool you buy and want to learn how to use it, you can learn in one of our classes. If you’re not sure you want to buy it, practice in class and see if you like it.
“In the café we have a lot of our products that we teach you how to make.
“If you go to a restaurant and like the recipe, you’re not going to get it, probably. Here, people are eating a quiche and we can teach you how to make it. If you don’t want to make it, you can buy it.”
Classes cover global cuisines, not just French, and there are about 12 a week with 60 varieties, including kids classes planned around school breaks and weekends.
Brutel flicks a switch on an island in the classroom side of the operation, dropping its height from 36 to 24 inches, low enough for a child’s reach. In the summer, children as young as 5 can attend.
The French Kitchen also has a VIP club, which includes special parties, contests and other perks for those who take at least 15 classes. Brutel points to a woman in the café.
“She’s taken 75 of my classes.”
Art of negotiation
Brutel found success quickly once in her first commercial location. That’s partly due, she said, to her accrual of about 2,000 clients during the five years she operated out of her home. Many followed her to Academy Boulevard.
But one unique advantage Brutel found, was by aggressively seeking sponsors to help with her opening. She’s been able to acquire nearly a dozen, from utensil sharpeners to garage door providers to cabinetmakers. Miele, a German brand, provided all the appliances in exchange for client courses on how to operate them. Wüsthof cutlery donated knives. In total, Brutel has secured about $150,000 in sponsorships, she said.
“Persuasion runs in my family,” she said. “We don’t drop things until we get them.
“This took a lot of negotiating. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get it.”
The French Kitchen Culinary Center
Location: 4771 N. Academy Blvd.