Christian LeBlanc’s road to becoming one of New Orleans’ most promising young pastry chefs started inauspiciously. It was a Saturday night, he had just showered before bedtime, and he was making his way to his room when he caught a sweet scent emanating from the kitchen across the hall. His mother, an administrative assistant and hobbyist baker, had prepped cinnamon rolls for the morning. With the coast clear, he and his brother crept into the kitchen. “We made a total mess of ourselves playing in the dough and flour,” he says.
In hindsight, LeBlanc, 18, ought to be forgiven for the pastry massacre that survives as one of his earliest and fondest kitchen memories; he was “four or five years old,” after all, and the curiosity has served him well in the years since.
This May, just a week before he graduated from St. Augustine High School, LeBlanc received a scholarship to attend a nine-month pastry arts career program at the International Culinary Center in New York City courtesy of The John Besh and Bride Mayor Chefs Move! scholarship program. Chefs Move! was created by Besh, the famed Louisiana restaurateur, and co-founder Jessica Bride to help empower minority chefs-in-training from the New Orleans area to become future kitchen leaders. LeBlanc is one of two Chefs Move! scholarship recipients this year, the ninth since its inception, and the youngest in the program’s history.
A Budding Career
“I realized I could make a career out of this when some of my mother’s friends started asking me to make desserts for them and offering to pay,” says LeBlanc, who spent his childhood tinkering with pies and breads and cakes. Besides his mother’s handiwork, LeBlanc grew up admiring pastry chefs featured on shows like “Food Network Challenge” and TLC’s “Cake Boss.” “Seeing what you could create with cakes really amazed me,” he says.
From a young age, LeBlanc immersed himself in the pastry world, researching the work of dessert auteurs Ron Ben-Israel, Duff Goldman, and Antonio Bachour.
The shows sparked a full-on independent study, as LeBlanc started immersing himself “in the pastry world,” researching the work of dessert auteurs Ron Ben-Israel, Duff Goldman, and Antonio Bachour. He developed a goal of emulating Ben-Israel’s elegant touch with custom cakes and Bachour’s imagination with plated desserts. He took detailed mental notes anytime he tried something new. For instance, on a road trip to the Houston area to visit his father, who works in the oil industry, LeBlanc distinctly remembers “eating a chocolate buttermilk cake layered with dark, milk, and white chocolate mousse served on top of a raspberry sauce with mint whipped cream and fresh raspberries. It was a dessert I’ll never forget.”
In addition to captaining the Purple Knights’ tennis team, LeBlanc landed a high school gig as a pastry cook at the Besh Restaurant Group’s Domenica and PIZZA Domenica. Under the tutelage of head pastry chef Lisa White, LeBlanc worked on desserts and the occasional showpiece for restaurant competitions. He calls White his mentor, adding that “she always seems to find the best in everything and pushes me to my full potential in and outside of the kitchen.”
The Chefs Move! scholarship is paying for LeBlanc’s tuition, housing, and supplies ranging from a laptop to knives during his nine-month training in New York City — it’s meant to be a full immersion into a professional cooking environment. Since June, he has been taking five-hour evening classes three days a week and spent his days working in an International Culinary Center kitchen; mornings are dedicated to food preparation and evenings to service.
New Orleans to New York — and Back
It’s his first time in New York City, and LeBlanc has embraced the tenacious curiosity of his childhood. On a recent outing to Danny Meyer’s acclaimed Flatiron District restaurant Gramercy Tavern, known for such inventive desserts as a peach and tomato buckle with almond streusel and lemon verbena ice cream, LeBlanc sampled dish after dish. “I thought I died and went to pastry heaven,” he says. “I tried one of every dessert on their menu, and it was awesome.”
New York’s culinary scene has LeBlanc smitten, but he’s eager to return to write his own story back home. At the end of the program, he’ll begin a paid internship at a Besh restaurant in New Orleans. “I want to bring new ideas to a local kitchen,” he says.
LeBlanc also plans to enroll in a local four-year college and pursue a major in finance and minor in business management. Long-term? On the side, he wants to invest in local farmers and businesses in conjunction with his main focus: “I would like to run my own bakery.”
That, New Orleans, would be sweet.