Farid Zadi likes to tell the story of how, when he was 14, he got a job as a dishwasher at a local castle to make some extra money. That would be a real castle, not one where the waitstaff dress like courtesans to bring you faux-medieval chicken legs while you watch fake knights pretend to kill each other.
The actual castle, Castel de Valrose, is near Lyon, France, where the French-Algerian chef grew up, and yes, he knows it is not a common way of breaking into the culinary business. Zadi washed dishes at the castle's restaurant, but he also watched and learned, and soon decided that he'd found his calling. “I'd taste everything,” he says. “I'd go into the walk-in and stare at the produce.”
Journeying from the castle to an Escoffier culinary school in Paris to a two-star Michelin restaurant, he eventually arrived in Pasadena, where for six years Zadi was chef-instructor at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school.
He recently departed Cordon Bleu's Henry Ford assembly line-style teaching for Ecole de Cuisine, the school he launched with his wife, Susan Ji Young Park, in October.
With his thick French accent, warp-speed cooking pace and an intensity that grows with the specificity of the technique he's demonstrating, Zadi can be a bit intimidating. His softer side comes out when he's with his two young children.
In addition to classical French cuisine, Zadi sometimes teaches dishes from his family's Berber Algerian culture, such as harissa and handmade couscous, or merguez sausage-making and tagine cookery.
Although he is a classically trained French chef, the cuisine of North Africa is as much a part of his cooking as is the style of cooking legend Auguste Escoffier. When he was young, right after he graduated from culinary school, Zadi spent time herding sheep in Setif, his family's hometown in northeastern Algeria. “I was taught by my mother how to cook with all my senses. That's very North African: cooking with all your senses,” he says. “You smell, you watch carefully, you control your heat, you control moisture retention, you take time to develop sauces.”
Zadi now has his own line of tagine pots, the traditional cookware of North Africa, as well as an annual couscous festival, the second of which will be held in June. He also is scouting locations for his first restaurant, and no, it will not be in a castle (though we do know a few Disney-constructed ones we could suggest). Unless you consider the restaurant, and the classroom, Zadi's metaphorical castles. Which would be about right.
This story is from our current People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.