Serving up a second act

Local esthetician-turned-chef shows it's never too late to start a second career

Chantale Doinel, owner of Chantale Cuisine, picks edible borage blossoms at a garden in Woodside to use as a garnish in her dishes. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Chantale Doinel sits in her Menlo Park skin care studio, having just arrived from a rental equipment meeting regarding a 200-person gala that's in the works as part of her second business, Chantale Cuisine, a catering business that specializes in upscale French cuisine with a European influence.

"I'm busy seven days a week," she said with a laugh. Doinel, who simultaneously manages both businesses, clearly thrives on being busy.

"I need to have something to do," she said. "It energizes me."

Doinel, an esthetician who has worked in skin care for 35 years, said that ever since she was a child growing up in Normandy, France, cooking was always a passion -- one that her mother instilled in her and her brothers alike.

Born in Marrakesh, Morocco, Doinel said she grew up exposed to a diverse array of cuisines early on.

"It did influence my cooking," she said, adding that she incorporates Spanish, Moroccan and Italian food into a largely French-based menu. Her Spanish platter, for example, features Serrano and Iberico ham, burrata, Spanish olives, Marcona almonds and tomato bread; while her "Made in Morocco" specialty is a traditional 10-course feast, or "diffa."

Her cooking and even her aesthetic approach to plating is largely influenced by her childhood growing up on the coast of France, foraging with her family in the forest and visiting farmers markets.

"Normandy is on the coast, so we were raised with the most amazing fish from the Atlantic," she said, adding that the region specializes in apples and dairy products, like cheese and cream. On the weekends, she and her father would go to the forest to forage for mushrooms, herbs or escargot.

"I associate food with nature -- going to the market -- and we always had wild mushrooms, wild herbs. So I was raised like this, with really fresh products from the field, and my father was a really good gardener, so we always had fresh produce at home," she said.

Today, she preserves her upbringing by cultivating her own herbs and edible flowers in her home garden in Woodside, which she uses to flavor and garnish her dishes, and making regular trips to the coast, where she collects algae to decorate her tables. She also goes to Half Moon Bay to purchase fresh seafood and frequents the Menlo Park farmers market.

When Doinel immigrated to the United States 35 years ago, she said that it was the French comfort food from her childhood that she remembered the most -- rich stews, beef bourguignon, coq au vin, vegetables in flavorful sauces, slow-cooked braised meat and fresh seafood.

Over time, her cooking garnered attention by word of mouth, and she started teaching French cuisine on the side -- something she has now been doing for 15 years. This segued into catering and four years ago, at the age of 62, she decided to go for a culinary degree at the International Culinary Center in Campbell.

"I get very stimulated by learning ... maybe that explains why I went back to school at 62; I constantly need to learn," she said.

Doinel didn't balk at the prospect of breaking into a male-dominated field in her 60s, either.

"I had to struggle with the male ego over the years because it's a male industry to start with," she said. "It's tough to work in the kitchen -- the heat and pots -- it's physical. Very physical. But I got respect from male chefs; I proved to them what I was capable of doing."

Doinel credits her upbringing for her strong and fearless work ethic.

"I was raised with boys ... My father was in the military. So I know about being tough, and being with men," she said, adding that the kitchen has its own military-like style. "You have to be disciplined, orderly and you have to command -- and I do. I command my staff all the time."

Doinel said she is currently busy year-round with events that range from intimate eight-person gatherings to galas for upward of 300 people. Her schedule this year includes local catering events for the Rotary Club and the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, as well as a private gala at The Morgan Estate in Los Altos Hills.

Most events are local, though she has been flown to Hawaii to cater a special dinner, and she said she was the first female chef to cater a private event for the exclusive men's social club Bohemian Club at the Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, California.

When she is not planning events or managing her skin care business, Doinel teaches classes at Draeger's Cooking School in Menlo Park that focus on plating and French cuisine.

"I love plating -- harmonizing the plate, balancing the plate. I have five things always in balance here," she said, pointing to an image of one of her dessert tarts. "I have the dough, the fruit, the custard, the flower, the garnish. It's not simple. I like the challenge, and I like beautiful things."

More information about Doinel is available at chantaledoinel.wix.com/chantalecuisine.

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