Chef Jacques La Merde – a.k.a Christine Flynn

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In a sea of foodie Instagrams and sanctimonious healthy eating social media accounts, there is nothing more refreshing than someone making us confront the silliness of it all.

The @chefjacqueslamerde Instagram brings this humourous side of the food industry to the fore. “Jacques” is a lovably thuggish chef with a giant ego, a penchant for the words “dude” and “bro”, and an immense pride in the art of beautiful plating.

Only “Jaqcues” isn’t plating truffled potato puree and braised beef cheek – “Jacques” is creating a high-end dining experience using ingredients such as Doritos, Velveeta cheese (a processed cheese from the US), corn dogs and cans of Spam, to name a few.

Sounds outlandish? The @chefjacqueslamerde account has amassed a 125k following and counting, striking a chord with foodies and those who work in the food industry alike.

Until the end of January this year, it remained a mystery who was behind the account. As “Jacques” gained a profile for the images of beautifully plated junk food and the hilariously all-caps captions that accompanied them, fans questioned who was behind the account. And almost all guesses centred around men.

The twist: On US show Top Chef in January, “Jacques” was revealed to be Toronto-based FEMALE chef Christine Flynn.

We had a chat to Christine shortly after the big reveal, talking all things tweezered food, food industry “bro culture” and the therapeutic nature of expressing yourself creatively.

So how did you get into food in the first place?

I’ve always enjoyed working in food. I’ve always felt it was a place where I could be creative. I’ve been doing it for seventeen years now and I just love it – I really enjoy the culture, which I guess is kind of obvious by my alter ego [Jacques].

Do you think it actually is obvious, given you make fun of that culture through your @chefsjacqueslamerde account?

I think humour is different to different people. One of the things important to me is I need to constantly be making fun of myself. That was a huge part of the account – I’ve obviously poked

a little fun at the more extreme elements of the industry, but that was never meant to be malicious, it was more just “look how silly we are sometimes – let’s just have a little bit of a laugh”, which is why I think people have enjoyed it.

So how did the @chefjacqueslamerde persona and account come about?

If you were to ask my mother, she would say it’s actually just me in all-caps [laughs]! Really, I was  channelling myself at my most hysterical moments.

The character came out pretty fully formed. Obviously I knew he was going to be a chef, probably the chef I would be if I had been born a man. Just this sort of bumbling goofball, constantly getting himself into trouble, but you know, finding a way to get out of it and give everyone that virtual backslap to let them know that things are gonna get better if you just push through.

So to me it was a very, and I hate to use this expression, but it was an extremely organic process.

So you didn’t have a run-in with some bro-like character and go, “You know what? I’m going to create a character like this”?

No – and you know I think it’s interesting how, when you create something but don’t give an explanation, people read a lot of different things into it. Some people thought I was taking down “bro culture”, or making fun of specific chefs, and I wasn’t. I’ve been in this industry so long and 97 per cent of my friends are men and I LOVE them. I’m so happy to be around “bro culture”. I call people “bro” all the time, I do the high five thing.

People were reading so much into it and really, it was much simpler than that. I just plated food as beautifully as I could, and [I was enjoying] the extreme irony of going downstairs to spend five dollars at my local La Bodega [supermarket] to create a dish and plate it as beautifully as I could. And that to me is what has made it funny.

You come from IQ Food Co in Toronto, which generally focuses on healthy, sustainable food. So why did you decide to plate up junk food as “Jacques”?

Again that hilarious irony was important to me. I love plating, it’s something I really enjoy but it’s also something I don’t get to do that much in my everyday work.

But as for the junk food thing, I guess I look at healthy eating and sustainability and what that means to me as a person. For me personally, it’s not sustainable to eat tofu all the time. I tried to be vegan for a year… I was so stressed out about food so I just said, “Ergh, I’m not good at this.”

I think you need to have balance in life – you have to have a sense of humour and you can’t put too many rules around what you eat. There’s so much stuff out there that’s not happy that we have to deal with every day, so what’s sustainable to me is to make sure I laugh every day, and you know, maybe I’ll have a handful of Doritos and it won’t be the end of the world.

So has anyone eaten the food after you’ve plated/shot it?

I have a great photo collection of my dog eating the food after I’m done. But yeah, there’s certainly been a few that have been pretty edible, actually.

I didn’t grow up eating this food at all, so I hadn’t really experienced any of the products until I started the @chefjacqueslamerde account. So that was kind of a draw card for me, because I was kind of like, what IS this substance [laughs] and I picked the weirdest things.

…Like Spam?

Yeah, Spam’s a good one, I’d never had Spam before. Growing up in my house, we were dirt poor, but we never ate processed food. It was so foreign to me. So it’s been fun. And the nostalgic component of it is cool. You know, Gummi Bears… it’s fun to be around those things, to remember what it’s like to be a kid when everything was simpler.

So which photograph was your favourite? Is there one that stands out?

Well I love the Velveeta one. It was kind of a play on another chef’s dish. It’s Velveeta Seven Ways, and the simplicity of it was actually kind of what was striking to me.

And then there was the Drumstick ice cream shot, when I was going through this pretty rough breakup and I was like, I’m just gonna write about it on social media. And I was probably cry-eating ice cream out of the tub at the time [laughs].

But you know, it’s a good thing to do, to create things when you’re confused. Or upset. There are so many positive things that can come out of that – when you’re at your most raw, I think you’re also at your most creative.

What made you decide to reveal your identity?

Well, it’s been a year [since I started the account] and over the course of that year, I was spending a lot of energy on my phone. You know, I want to work on other projects and work with other chefs, and you can’t do that when you’re anonymous. So it was kind of time. Being a person that’s into balance and collaboration and all these things, it was time to go out there and be a real person.

Everyone thought a male chef was behind the account. The account was an alter ego that could’ve been male or female, so why do you think they made that assumption?

This is funny because I was very careful for a long time never to reveal gender. Most of the names were gender neutral, and my mum actually thought Jacques’ sous chef “Jose” was “Josie”, which was
cute. And any time I mentioned someone else it would be a name like Pat, or Leslie. So the whole thing for me was a little bit of a social experiment.

I think though, when you have a chef who’s throwing around the word “bro” all the time, then yeah of course [it’s going to be assumed] it’s a male.

And it was DELIGHTFUL for me to receive all these direct messages that were like “BROTHER, wassup? Your account is so tight! [laughs]”
And you know, women love “Jacques” too! I’d get these direct messages on Instagram that were like “I love you! And if you’re ever in wherever city, we should hang out some time!”

Even one of my now good friends who wrote a piece @chefjacqueslamerde for the Richmond News – I had to finally call her and be like, “I’m not a dude”. She was like, “Oh, I’m disappointed because I kind of had the feels for you, but I’m also kind of happy because it means it’s not gonna be weird when you come and sleep on my couch” [laughs].

That’s hilarious. It’s interesting though… women in the food industry have to adopt a bit of that “bro culture” just to fit in with the kitchen as well?

For sure. I mean, it took me a really long time to find my way [in that world]. At first I was really…

I was sweet; I was a pushover. And then I was very tough. And I kind of transformed into a person that I didn’t want to be, because I was worried people wouldn’t respect me. Instead they were kind of terrified of me, which I don’t think is much better.

I’m lucky now, I have a pretty good resume [which makes that unnecessary] – and even though the @chefjacqueslamerde account is all ranch dip and cheese slices, the account has changed how people look at me. And after it was revealed who I am, I’m still kind of figuring that part out. But it’s definitely helped me get to a place where instead of being looked at as a “cool chick chef”, it’s more like, “oh, she’s a cool chef”. It just teaches you that you can’t pigeonhole people.

But you know, so many people were happy it was me. A lot of male chefs who I respect were also happy. It’s not just this “girl power” thing… it’s a fun twist.

When you create an Instagram post, how long does it take you to come up with the dish, plate it up and then shoot and caption it?

So it’s just shot on an iPhone. I would usually, after a stressful day at work or something, go to the grocery store and probably spend about 15 minutes thinking about a little bit of a theme, and I’d take the food home and I’d plate it, and that would probably take around five minutes, and then I’d write the caption.

Usually the caption is something that either happened to me that day or maybe to one of my friends. But usually it happened to me. Like someone would drop a blender in the sink. And we’d have a no-show. And I went through a break up. So it was pretty easy to write about all of that because it was actually happening.

…Kind of like a journal?

Oh yeah for sure. And I think social media is fascinating, right, because we’re all constantly branding ourselves, saying you know, how great life is, it’s so amazing, we’re perfect, our makeup’s on fleek – meanwhile [through @chefjacqueslamerde] I’ve been like, “My life is falling apart! [laughs]”’

It was like this open, raw honesty that was like, you know, we all have those days, and really the only thing you can do is pull your socks up and carry on. And crush it.

You can find the @chefjacqueslamerde account on Instagram and online:
www.chefjacqueslamerde.com.

Lauren Bruce

Lauren started her writing career as a communications adviser before she realised she couldn’t ignore her passion for food and the arts any longer. So now she does both! Now editor of Gram Magazine, she has also contributed to Quest Magazine, Spook, the Herald Sun, Paper Sea and Junkee.