When Lucille S. Vanel was a child, she created a magical dreamland in her mind.
“It was dinner-table conversation,” she said. “My older brothers and sisters would tell what they did that day. And I would tell them what I did that day, which was to go to Cambyration and play there.”
It was a world and a word she made up. But now, powered by her imaginative culinary skills, she has created her own real-life playground in a place that the world’s top food writers call the gastronomical capital of France.
Her realm is in Lyon — a world away from the summers she spent in Chaumont and the hallways of Syracuse’s Nottingham High School, which she graduated from in 1985. Mrs. Vanel, 47, calls Chaumont her hometown, and it’s where her mother, Ann F. Sellers, now permanently lives in the home her late husband — Mrs. Vanel’s father — designed and built.
“She has always been interested in food,” Mrs. Sellers said. “As a very little girl, she and my mother (Lucille M. Ford) made cookies and biscuits and that sort of thing.”
The cookie and biscuit skills have evolved to where Mrs. Vanel can conjure a strawberry “fraisier” — a stunning French pastry cake — with no problem. Whether it’s a stuffed duck neck or an apple pie, she’s at home in Lyon, where she helps to make food-related visions come true at her Plum Lyon Teaching Kitchen.
It has astonished people such as Gregory A. Gardner, SUNY Potsdam associate professor of business, and his wife, Jeanne M., both dedicated foodies. The Adams residents stumbled across Mrs. Vanel and her teaching kitchen this summer. The couple, who have a special love of French cooking, took a vacation to France in July and signed up for classes at Plum Lyon.
“We knew from her website and Trip Advisor profile that Lucy was an expat American who taught in English and got rave reviews from her clients,” Mr. Gardner said. “What we did not know until we met her on our first morning of class was that she was from Chaumont.”
Mrs. Vanel specializes in taking her students to the scores of outdoor markets and fromageries (cheese shops) in Lyon, purchasing items and taking them back to her school/kitchen. There, she and her students cook up a multi-course meal based on that day’s finds.
Some days are focused on pastries, but her school — which launched in January of 2012 — also hosts classes in classic French cooking, children’s workshops and single-subject classes that cover a chosen technique or theme in French cuisine. Prices range from 130 to 160 Euros ($173 to $213). She is its only employee.
Mrs. Vanel said there are 15 cooking schools in Lyon, which has a population of about 2 million people. But her classes, she said, are the only ones taught in English. All students who take them are enthusiastic, she said.
“I love to see that, because sometimes, when you are out there on your own, just discovering, like I was when I first got here, I felt a little bit alone,” Mrs. Vanel said in a phone interview from Lyon. “I was wondering if I was the only one who had a passion for French cooking and food.”
She constantly expands on that passion.
“I think my classes are slightly more encompassing than your average cooking class here,” she said of the overall selection of cooking classes in Lyon.
indirect route to lyon
Mrs. Vanel’s path to creating her dream job in Lyon had a few detours, including the Army, Germany and China. But it was a chance encounter at a North Carolina restaurant that became the catalyst for her career in Lyon.
After graduating from Nottingham High in 1985, she majored in art history at Syracuse University. Four years later, and a few courses short of a degree, she joined the Army.
“It was basically to pay off my student loans,” Mrs. Vanel said. “But I got a lot more out of it.”
She said the Army recruiter agreed to her request that she would be based in a European country. But once she was in the Army — after it was found she had an aptitude for learning languages — she was told she would be learning Chinese at the Presidio in Monterey, Calif. Afterward, true to the recruiter’s word, she was sent to Germany for her assignment, where she worked at the U.S. Army’s 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt as an executive assistant to the personnel director.
After her four-year year enlistment was up, she returned to Syracuse for a about a year before she acted on her dream of living in China. She was intrigued by the culture after learning the language, and she became obsessed with Chinese cooking as a hobby as she worked at a Swiss-based commodities trading company based in Beijing. The job involved lots of traveling throughout China.
After four years in that country, she headed back to the United States in 1997 to pursue a master’s degree in sculpture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and to finish up credits there to get her degree from Syracuse. It was during her graduate studies that she and a friend decided to go to a restaurant.
“I rarely ever ate out,” she said. “It was very bizarre. We just said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ But it was meant to be.”
At the restaurant, she noticed a man dining alone. He was Loïc F. Vanel, a scientist from France doing research at the University of North Carolina.
From Mrs. Vanel’s experience in China, she knew how uncomfortable solo dining at a restaurant can be.
“I always reach out to foreigners because people would reach out to me when I was in China,” she said. “They would take me under their wings and show me around. It was important for me to pass that baton.”
She invited Mr. Vanel to the table she was sharing with a friend.
“And everything changed,” she said.
The couple married in 2000. Before doing so, however, Mrs. Vanel told her husband-to-be that he had to spend a year in America to experience life as an expat.
“I knew our marriage would start off on more solid ground if he understood the frustrations and difficulties of living abroad,” said Mrs. Vanel, who has dual citizenship.
She told her husband he could pick any city in the United States; they spent one year in Los Angeles before moving to Lyon.
Mrs. Vanel picked up the French language well, helped by a few language classes and by the French she learned in high school.
“I was able to function after about three months after I got here,” she said.
Soon, her food focus shifted.
“I was obsessed with Chinese cooking when I met my husband,” Mrs. Vanel said. “I just changed direction when we got here. I was trying to cook for my husband from cookbooks and not really succeeding.”
Meanwhile, she took advantage of the scores of outdoor markets in Lyon. She said there are about 40 in the city, and going to them daily is a way of life for citizens of France.
“Every market has its own history, and people are very proud of them,” she said.
After stints in freelance writing and food photography, Mrs. Vanel landed a job in “culinary translation” for a France-wide restaurant guide. She had to describe, in English, regional French dishes.
She ended up describing 16,000 different dishes in the translation project. She began blogging about food and building skills in French cooking. In 2005, she was asked by a professor at Dartmouth College to instruct classes in French culture and culinary traditions for some of the New Hampshire college’s exchange students in Lyon.
“Because they were from an Ivy League school, I did a lot of preparation,” Mrs. Vanel said. “I was really nervous about it. After I taught them, I realized it was something I loved to do.”
She went to different teaching kitchens in Lyon and asked if she could give workshops in English, but she had to change pace after her son was born five years ago.
“Having a baby and being an itinerant cooking teacher are not meant for one another,” she said.
Mrs. Vanel and her husband began searching for a place where she could build her own teaching kitchen. They found one in 2011 in the city’s old silk district, which formerly housed a bakery. The building also is where her family lives.
“It was the fruit of our labors,” she said; hence the “Plum” name.
Her popular “market-table” classes, with a maximum of six people, are held three times a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“I love to do something different every day,” Mrs. Vanel said. “When I started giving classes, I realized that people want to learn about Lyonnaise cuisine. That is so fulfilling to me, knowing that I’m able to apply all this research and the work I’ve done over the years.”
Mr. Gardner, who writes an occasional column for the Watertown Daily Times on local business matters, said he hopes Mrs. Vanel visits Chaumont in the near future.
“Hopefully, we can arrange to cook with her,” Mr. Gardner said.
“That would be wonderful,” said Mrs. Vanel, who spends several weeks in Chaumont every few years.
Mrs. Vanel, whose father, John L. Sellers, died in 2000, spent six weeks in the community last summer visiting her mother and other relatives and friends. The visits, she said, are especially important for her 5-year-old son.
“I want him to remember his grandmother in her context; in the house that my father built and the special culture that’s in the area, especially in the summertime.”
As for the days she spent growing up, Mrs. Vanel treasures the only existing childhood photo of herself that she knows of.
“It’s of me cooking,” she said.