"Fond Memories": An Interview with Chef Madeleine Dee
Written by Ben Gierhart for The Voice Tribune/The Voice of Louisville - Winter 2016
If you were to ask most people where they expect to find themselves in five years and then follow up after that time has passed, odds are that life ended up leading them down an unexpected path. This isn’t to say that their journeys were wrought with any less determination or yielded any less success. However, it is to say that people are complicated, beautiful, and capable of just about anything when they can strike an uncommon balance between grit and adaptability. One woman who knows these qualities well is Madeleine Dee, owner and executive chef at Fond.
Dee initially held the aspiration of gracing the silver screen. Every step on her journey was a means to that end, and despite her eventual career change, she maintains an unrestrained exuberance that surely would have sparkled on camera, “Well, I never really stopped wanting to be a movie star!”
According to Dee, the acting bug bit her when she was in the seventh grade. “I took a theater class for a semester, and I absolutely loved every moment of it,” she recalls fondly. “The teacher was convinced that I was going to be a star, but at that time, I didn’t really view acting as a career possibility.” Over the course of the next few years, she performed in a handful of plays at her high school and with Walden Theatre. By her senior year, she had amassed a significant amount of amateur experience and had settled on the matter: “I realized that I could just go to Los Angeles to be an actress. The idea stuck around in the back of my mind, and by the end of the year, acting was all I could honestly imagine doing with my life.”
Dee’s mother - as parents are wont to do - encouraged her to obtain a college degree, so, dutifully, Dee enrolled at UofL. It was in that environment that she discovered her thirst for knowledge and insatiable curiosity. “In my second semester, I was studying anthropology and three foreign languages,” she recounts. She was flourishing academically, but she still yearned to be in Los Angeles.
Unable to ignore her instincts any longer, Dee dropped out and attempted to make plans for a move to California. Predictably, the task proved difficult to accomplish at 18 and without a degree. Dee also had no idea how she would make a living. “The stereotype is that you’ll work as a waitress or sling cocktails during the struggle, but I’m actually a terrible waitress,” she admits with a laugh. “So, I knew I’d have to go another route.”
As it turns out, that other route was not far off: cooking. “It was very random when I asked my parents if I could go to culinary school. I figured I’d work in a restaurant at night and audition during the day, or maybe be a private chef to a movie star until I caught my “big break”,” she explains.
Always intrigued by cookbooks and always loving to eat, Dee had never cooked anything more than cookies before; however, that was an activity over which she and her grandmother had bonded during her childhood. “She was a wonderful cook who was also very secretive about her techniques and recipes. I did not grow up learning from her in the kitchen, but we adored each other. Her apple pie was scrumptious and about a foot tall! She passed away in 2014, and I still kick myself for not soaking up every moment I could have enjoyed with her.” Perhaps it was this morsel of memory that was the seed for Dee’s seemingly random culinary aspirations.
Garnishing her memory with creativity and a dash of pragmatism, Dee again delayed her journey west to attend Sullivan University. Shortly after graduating, Dee worked at The English Grill, the signature dining room at The Brown Hotel to earn some much needed experience. A few months later, she opened No Place Like Home, a personal chef service through which she offered in-home meal prep, classes, and catering for dinner and cocktail parties. “I managed to get a few clients,” she recalls proudly. “Still wasn’t in love with cooking, though. I knew where I wanted to be.”
With a degree, a thought-out plan, and freshly minted confidence in tow, Dee finally packed her things - and her business - for La La Land in May 2011. She’d paid for a reel and gotten headshots. The oft-talked-about move was even preceded by a tear-filled going-away party. She drove out to California to make her dreams come true, but it only took her three days to discover that “I absolutely despised everything about Los Angeles. I tried! I really did. It just wasn’t for me. Everything was fake, and I immediately missed Southern hospitality. Real smiles. Nobody looked happy.”
Dee stuck it out for a couple more days, but as she had always been a creature of instinct, she knew right away that the city wasn’t for her. The uncertainty filled Dee with a wanderlust, and since her skill had reached a point where No Place Like Home was able to fully support her livelihood, she took this time to travel the world and learn even more about cooking.
England and France were unequivocal highlights of her travels, and with her wish to travel to a new country every year, Dee is certain to encounter some new favorites. However, there is one country in particular that stands head and shoulders above the rest. “My two weeks in Italy were especially amazing because I went alone and sort of lived like a hobo!” says Dee with an unrestrained laugh. “The freedom that goes along with traveling like that is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. And the food! I had no idea that pizza could be that good.”
“In Florence, I ate in a tiny osteria that I saw locals go into,” reminisces Dee. “The pasta was so delicious that I literally cried when I took the first bite.” she adds. “I turned around to look at the host, and he, his mother, and his grandfather - the chef - were all watching me. When we made eye contact, they just smiled and nodded as a tear rolled down my cheek. Then they gave me three glasses of housemade limoncello, and I took a tipsy stroll around the Piazza del Duomo. It was one of the loveliest nights of my life.”
And so Dee hopes to recreate that unforgettable experience for people in Louisville with an offshoot of No Place Like Home: Fond. Opened in 2015 and located on Frankfort Avenue, Fond is both a handmade grocery store and a fine dining experience that sources and sells products from local businesses. “I basically took all the elements I loved about being a personal chef and funneled them more efficiently into a location where customers could come to me instead of the reverse. You get a bit tired of using different kitchens every week,” says Dee.
Most importantly, in all her travels and shifting dreams, Dee seems to have finally found the rarest of all delicacies: her true self. “Fond is me. It’s my heart and soul, truly,” she says with no room for doubt. “I didn’t have enough money when I started, but that forced me to work five times as hard to ensure success. A lot of people who eat at Fond are introverts like myself. It’s fun to watch them get comfy and start to make friends with the other diners, bonding over the experience of eating here.”
As for what’s next, Dee is currently planning a backpack adventure through Paris, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, where she will try her luck with the Nordic cuisine at Noma. “I’m still skeptical that sea moss and twigs taste good,” she opines wryly. She’s also in the midst of her third business, Bold Bird Productions, a micro production company that serves as a marriage of her two passions. “Currently, we are going to make two web series: one about in-home entertaining and one that features intimate portraits of local Kentucky producers.” BBP has already secured Gerrard Lobo - an actor who has appeared on such shows as “Master of None” and “Orange Is The New Black” - for the first web series, and her company plans to begin shooting in January 2017.
And so, life may have handed Madeleine Dee an unconventional path. but it seems that by staying true to herself, she has found where she was destined to be all along. “Either it was pure luck that I just happened to choose something that I’d spend my life doing or I knew something I didn’t know I knew,” she muses. It’s certainly a realization that she’ll never take for granted, and it will be one that she hopes to instill in each and every one of her patrons: “Fond is a place where people can escape the world for a while. What better place to run away to than a comfy bistro full of delicious food and happy guests with a chef who knows your name?”
(Interview by Ben Gierhart; printed in The Voice of Louisville - Winter 2016)