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How one Michelin-starred chef is giving back to the Paris neighborhood he grew up in

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thierry Marx is one of France's top chefs with TV shows and Michelin-star restaurants, including one in the Eiffel Tower. But he felt his career wasn't complete if he didn't extend a helping hand to others, especially disadvantaged people from neighborhoods like the one in which he grew up. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited with Thierry Marx and his proteges.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Deboned stuffed chicken filets sizzle in goose fat at celebrity chef Thierry Marx's cooking school in the gritty east side of Paris, where he grew up in the 1970s. The students hovered around the stove have no culinary background, and many have spent months or even years unemployed. Marx understands.

THIERRY MARX: (Through interpreter) In 2004, when I was voted chef of the year, I got a lot of publicity. But the media kept asking how could someone who came from such a neighborhood become a Michelin-star chef.

BEARDSLEY: Marx says he was a bad student who went back to get his high school degree at the age of 25, but he was determined to have a culinary career and got lucky when a well-known chef took him on. He says this school is about giving others that same chance.

MARX: (Through interpreter) I told myself, I've absolutely got to do something for my people.

BEARDSLEY: Today, he runs 10 such cooking schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods around France, condensing two years of culinary learning into three months of intensive training. The schools are free, partly funded by private donations and supported by the French state.

BINTA DEIME: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Student Binta Deime has three children. Her own parents emigrated from Senegal. She hopes to change her life and dreams of becoming a chef.

DEIME: (Through interpreter) It was very important for me to understand the basics of French cooking, but I always like to marry French cuisine with African spices. I think it brings something special.

BEARDSLEY: The bakery and cooking classes are small, eight to 10 people, to give a real kitchen team feel. The students' ages range from 18 to 60. Lessons in basic gastronomy are given by chefs Marx has trained in his own restaurants. He comes in every couple of weeks to give a master's touch.

MARX: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Marx demonstrates making natural gelatin using orange peel, which he says is full of pectin.

MARX: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: If you have quality foods like organic oranges, nothing should be thrown out, he tells the students. The 64-year-old chef has many secrets to share. His students are spellbound.

MARX: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Ninety-two percent of his graduates find long-term employment.

MARX: (Through interpreter) I always tell them it's not your boss who will protect your job. It's your curiosity. The more curious you are, the more you will learn, the more you will specialize and the more you will be recruited.

BEARDSLEY: You don't need diplomas to study here, and no one is judged by their past, but there is one rule everyone must respect. If you're absent or late even once, you lose your spot.

MARX: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Marx describes the course as 12 weeks, not three months, because, he says, many people are living day to day.

YACINE MARSIT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-eight-year-old Yacine Marsit knows what that's like. He dropped out of high school and spent time in prison for drugs. Today, he's a chef at this fancy boat restaurant on the Seine River. We step aboard.

MARSIT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We're hosting more than 800 people here for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games this summer," he tells me. Marsit earned his diploma from Marx's school 10 years ago.

MARSIT: (Through interpreter) He gave me a chance, and I actually started thinking about my future and what I could accomplish.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARX: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In this TV documentary, Marx goes into a prison to give culinary lessons. He says cooking has allowed him to reach so many people.

MARX: (Through interpreter) It's the key to getting people to sit down at the table together and talk. And this is so important in today's society, where people are so divided.

BEARDSLEY: Back at his Paris school, students set the table for an 80-plate dinner that will include family members and real food critics. His school model has been copied in other countries.

MARX: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: But the biggest satisfaction of his career, says Marx, is running into people who say, thank you. You helped me change my life and have a second chance.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.