When someone with as notable a career as French master pastry chef Gilles Renusson is asked how they got into culinary arts, you might expect to hear something about a calling or a “gut feeling.” But for Renusson, it was simple: playtime was over.
“I was 14, and mom and dad made a decision for me that playing in the woods was over, and I needed to focus a little bit,” Renusson said. “They said, ‘OK, you’re going to boarding school,’ and that’s how I went to a training school and I learned how to cook. Then a few years later, I realized that I enjoy pastry more than cooking, so I refocused my attention to pastry.”
After working his first job in Belgium, 18-year-old Renusson returned to France and decided to visit his old stomping grounds. Little did he know he’d be chosen for an opportunity that would jumpstart the rest of his career. Jacques Sylvestre, one of the authors of “Cuisine et Travaux Pratiques,” the culinary guide for apprentices at the time, was calling around looking for talented students.
“Mr. Sylvestre had called a few schools, among which was the one I had practiced,” Renusson said. “He had said, ‘I want the best student from your school,’ and when I graduated, I graduated top of the college in culinary.”
Renusson was selected for the opportunity, but first, he had to serve a year in the military.
“At the time, it was mandatory,” he said. “Everybody had to spend a year in the service. The sous chef of Mr. Sylvestre said, ‘Hey, when you’re finished with the army, come and see me and I’ll find you a job,’ and that’s what happened.”
That first job? Maxim’s in Paris. From there, things only got better for Renusson. Over the next few years, he worked at both Fauchon and Dalloyau in Paris, continued his education in the culinary arts, competed in his first competition, and cooked at the Connaught Hotel in London before settling west of the Atlantic.
“In the U.K., I met my wife,” Renusson said. “She’s an American from Lansing, and we married in 1980 in France and moved to the U.S. in ’81. In ’82, I went to work at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, and I was there for almost two years and later on moved to Grand Rapids in 1984.”
Shortly after the move, Renusson put his pastry prowess to the test and became the executive pastry chef at the Amway Grand Plaza.
“I was there for eight years,” he said.
It was after those eight great years that Renusson decided to take a different path. While on the competition circuit, he’d met Robert Garlough, a fellow chef who was the founder of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. The two became fast friends.
“One day, the pastry chef instructor at the college left, and Bob told me, ‘Hey are you interested in teaching?’” Renusson said. “My wife said, ‘Hey, why not, it should be a healthy challenge.’ So, I did, and that was 28 years ago.”
Renusson wasn’t at GRCC long before another opportunity popped up. This time, a chance to get more involved in competitions.
“As soon as I started teaching, that was in ’92, I had received an invitation to manage the U.S. team for the world championship for the Coupe du Monde (World Pastry Cup),” he said. “I had just started at the college, and I went to see Bob Garlough, and I said, ‘Bob, I have this invitation and I’d like to know what you think,’ and he said, ‘We’ll support you any way you need.’ So, I did this from ’91 to ’97, and I took a break, and then in 2009, I was asked again by the organizers in France to take over the U.S. organization, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”
His time coaching and teaching certainly paid off. In September 2019, Renusson was awarded the Ordre du Mérite Agricole (Order of Agricultural Merit) for the culinary excellence he has practiced throughout the course of his illustrious career.
“In order to receive this medal, you have to be recommended,” he said. “It’s good for the school, and I want to say that because really, if I hadn’t been working at Grand Rapids Community College, I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to take free time to go during the school year sometimes to judge competitions and come back with information that I can share with my students and my colleagues.”
So, what is a master pastry chef’s favorite dessert? Turns out, it’s not a pastry at all.
“I love ice cream — because pastry chefs have to make ice cream, also,” Renusson said. “They have to make candy; they have to make ice cream; they have to make breakfast pastries. I love crepes because Mom used to make them. She doesn’t make them anymore because she doesn’t have any appetite for cooking anymore. She’s into making sweaters for all her great-grandchildren.”
Even with gourmet restaurants, nationally recognized accolades and decades of teaching under his belt, Renusson isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“I never feel like everything is finished; I always think that there is more to be done,” he said. “I could be retired if I wanted, but I love my profession, and that’s why I’m still doing it.” GR