May-Cecile chats about pursuing her dream, learning from those who inspired her love for cooking and the ambition to recreate and serve her favourite Creole dishes from her childhood.
Source: May-Cecile Frezou-Lajoie
Most recognise May Cecile Frezou-Lajoie as the May Cecile who used to live in her beloved Seychelles and became popular as a vocalist in the band Waves which performed all over the islands. This was yonks ago and the singer has since moved to France where she turned her talents to food and opened her own restaurant, ‘May Lajoie’ aux Papilles.
May Cecile moved to France in late 1999 to pursue her studies after receiving a scholarship from the French embassy in Seychelles. She re-married in 2006, pursued her dream of becoming a chef and restaurateur and now lives in Péret, a small wine village in southern France where she’s raising her three children Emanuel, 23, Gabrielle, 11, and Asaëlle, eight.
Cosmocreole chats with the 48-year-old to find out all about pursuing her dream as Chef and how she made it all the way to the TV show, MasterChef.
What have you been doing since moving to France? Before opening my restaurant, I graduated from the Aix-en-Provence-Marseille University and Montpellier Paul Valéry University with both Bachelor and Masters degrees after studying the British and American Linguistics, Literature and History. I taught basic English in primary schools for four years with the French ministry of education, then went into the private sector teaching O and A level literature in a Cambridge private school, as well as business English and translation in a law firm. Moving to Péret marked the end of my teaching years after teaching 2 years in my village. Pregnant with my first daughter, my husband and I decided that I continue with teaching business English and translation with the law firm by correspondence through Skype and phone as he, Guilhem, travels a lot for his job, thus having at least 1 parent at home to care for the kids.
What do you enjoy doing outside the kitchen? Besides my job as Chef in my restaurant, I love singing, my first passion, gardening, swimming and reading.
What inspired your cooking journey? At home, my mom cooked when we were small. As we grew up, we all had chores attributed to each one of us five siblings. I have three brothers and a sister. Everyone had turns to cook. So, we learned to cook from a young age. My mother was a school teacher, the district’s church organist and choir leader. She was at school or at church a lot, so we had to help out at home. My cooking skills started then. My brothers and sister are quite good cooks as well. It’s a family thing.
I loved my mum’s cooking so much and I started trying her recipes which I memorised as soon as I could. I remember reaching home from the Seychelles Polytechnic at around 3:30 pm and I would cook myself a quick grilled fish, a cucumber salad and some rice and I’d enjoy my afternoon meal. I ‘hated’ the canteen food which I thought had no taste at all then! That would be the start of my cooking passion. I’d eat in restaurants, memorise the tastes of dishes, I figured out the ingredients on my taste buds and I’d get home and try cooking the dishes from my palatial memory. I got quite good at that and continued doing it when I got to France. As you know, France is one of the greatest countries where gastronomy is concerned, and I have learned to cook so many dishes just by experiencing with my taste buds. My husband’s grandmother was a super cook. I took up lots of her recipes like that too.
What has it been like working in the restaurant industry in France? I started to want to host a table at my house when we first moved to Péret in 2006. I thought I’d cook huge pots and get people to come eat at my table weekly. I discovered then that the French cooking and food industry requires a lot of protocols, hygiene, material, etc… before being able to cook for the public. That was hard to digest because my home kitchen was not adapted to the European gastronomy norms. I continued my translational English tutoring until 2013 when I saw an advert on TV one afternoon asking people who love cooking to subscribe online to enter the MasterChef contest.
MasterChef? The TV show? That’s amazing. Tell us more! Without thinking, and very excited, I took my tablet, got into the TF1 website and enrolled myself! My husband got very anxious when I got a call one late morning from the MC agent for a phone interview. He told me that he was scared I got in because he wouldn’t know how to deal with our 8-month-old baby girl, the other kids and the house if I got chosen. And unluckily for him, that’s just what happened after I was ‘coup de cœur’ at the first step in Marseille with my cold entrée, then got chosen in the first 20 candidates after presenting my hot dish in Paris. It all happened so fast it was like in a fairy tale!
How exciting! So what was that experience like? MasterChef came as a shock to me and my family. I presented a ‘mille-feuille’ of the famous French foie gras, with ‘confied’ mango and the jury loved the look of it and the taste of it. It was a new thing for them, the association of these two ingredients. I was their favourite among 3,000 other candidates in Marseille. I was then called to present a hot dish in the Paris finals. I got very excited, but I thought I wouldn’t be taken as I’m a little self-taught Seychelloise among so many others who had experienced great cooking techniques in big restaurants. To my greatest surprise, the jury loved my personality, my charisma and my dish. I presented a very French dish, mixed with my Creole touch once again and got chosen among the first 20 to go on the TV show! I was terrified but very happy!
How cool is that! But this meant being away from your family, right? My husband lost it. He really panicked. He was very happy for I was chosen among more than 20,000 participants from all over France, Belgium and Switzerland but he didn’t know how he was going to cope at home because he travels a lot for his job and the kids were very young. I organised my absence from home for two months. That’s the time I was going to be in Paris for the shooting of the show. I got a cousin to come over from Seychelles and I cooked and froze enough food for two months!
It’s great to hear that you got some ‘Sista’ support from her so you could pursue your dream. So, how was the competition? It all went great. I finished 10th out of the 20 and got out of the show on a ‘Surprise Box’ day, not knowing what was in it and how to cook the French ‘navarin d’agneau’! I was sad but I had had a lifetime opportunity and met some of the greatest chefs of France! It was very enriching. I discovered that I had skills I didn’t know of and I got back home happy, fulfilled and a greater cook! This got me wanting my own restaurant!
And who wouldn’t? How did you get your other half onboard? I harassed my husband for three years so he would accept that we invest in the restaurant! He’s an engineer and he needed to study the pros and cons before we actually did it. He calculated it all to the least cent we would need and I just love him for that. He gave me the go-ahead in 2016. I set out to have everything done and I opened with much pride, the Restaurant ‘May Lajoie’ aux Papilles, after my maiden name Lajoie, of course. The whole name means, ‘my’ cooking on people’s tastebuds. In French, it’s a ‘jeu de mot’ meaning ‘donner du bonheur à vos papilles’, give some joy to your taste buds. And the May part in French world be ambiguous, me and give… It took me a while to come up with the perfect name!
How did you develop your cooking and plating skills for your restaurant? Is this something you had to teach yourself? I did a lot of that at home. I’m an artist, a singer, I love drawing, and I’m a good artist, I guess. I love food, I love playing, experiencing in the kitchen and displaying food as best as I can. The best part for me is tasting and finding the right combinations and tastes. I’m not a scale measuring person. I add this here, that there and the magic potion works! I watch a lot of videos on how to set out food on a plate and I’ve got a super visual memory. I try out things I’ve seen from videos. Just like before going to MasterChef, I was not good at certain things or I didn’t know certain things altogether. I watched many short YouTube videos about cooking techniques. I once was best for preparing an artichoke, in French ‘tourner un artichaut’. I had never done it before. The video flashed back in my head and I did it at a record time in MasterChef. It was the best, I came out first!
What do you love doing the most? I love singing and cooking. The two go very well together. I sing on Saturday evenings at my restaurant. I invite my clients to sing as well. We normally end up knowing each other and have great fun between setting my dishes and after! I also love reading. I’ve got loads of books, too. This passion started when I was very small. I started to read round the age of four. I started early. I used to devour books daily, loads in a week. Nowadays, I have less time to read but I do buy new books and get to my reading on Sundays or when I’m on a trip somewhere and not driving, of course!
Do you have a favourite recipe? I don’t have any favourites. I just love a tasty dish, well seasoned and all. If I would have a preference, it would be a good ‘kordonyen griye’. Any Seychellois knows what I’m talking about. Pan grilled with some soya sauce, lots of chilly, lemon and all. My mother’s style. One of my favourites! But I’ll share how to make a great octopus salad the Creole way. I love that too. My clients love this so much. I serve a lot of Creole dishes in my restaurant. My clients love the lentils the Seselwa way, the ‘rougay sosis’, and my very own invention, pan-fried fish filet with ginger-honey sauce. It’s just miam!
Sounds delicious. And one last question: Happiness to you is…? Having my husband home with my kids because he travels a lot for his work. Me in my restaurant kitchen setting out the dishes, sending off the plates and having them come back empty! It usually comes with some congratulations when I go see the clients after service. I greet every client after I’m done in the kitchen. I love getting their feedback, their thoughts about the dishes. It’s something I do all the time. I never let a client leave my restaurant without exchanging a few words with them. I use the critiques to get better, but most of the time they are in awe and thank me a lot for the great time they’ve spent at my table. I’m happy with all this. That’s happiness for me. A fulfilled life. I’d also love to visit my family in the Seychelles more often. I guess that’s the only thing missing to make me the happiest person on this planet.