In this founder advice segment we go back to our European roots interviewing Yetunde Oshodi-Fraudeau, of Cook’n with Class. Cook’n With Class is a French cooking school that started in Paris in 2007 by Chef Eric Fraudeau a professional French chef with over 30 years of experience in France, the United States, Canada, & Mexico. In 2015, Chef Eric and his wife Yetunde opened a second school, Cook’n with Class Uzès in the South of France in a medieval city called Uzès on the doorsteps to Provence. The school offers day classes in French cuisine with market to table classes, French desserts, and baking classes, & wine and cheese tastings. We also host culinary holidays and tours for a full immersion in French culture and cuisine both in Paris and in southern France.
How did Cook’n With Class get started?
Cook’n With Class was the collaborative brainchild of my husband, Chef Eric Fraudeau and I back in 2007. At the time I had already been running a successful vacation rental company for about 2 years and I had customers asking about things to do in Paris which prompted me to create a comprehensive welcome book with all sorts of suggestions. Eric was looking for a change in his career path and I made the suggestion casually over dinner (of course, it had to be over food), that maybe he could offer cooking lessons to my clients and other visitors to Paris. I subsequently created a page for him on my site offering his skills to my customers. One customer (with whom I remain in contact to this day), took us up on the offer and hired him for a lesson in one of the apartments they were staying in. She was his first student and within a year, the school was opened in a Montmartre Paris and has since welcomed thousands of eager food and wine lovers.
COVID has had a monumental impact on hospitality, travel, and tourism, how are you pivoting during this time?
I won’t lie, it has been tough. We are lucky to be where we are and to have a bit of support from the institutions in place but it isn’t enough and it isn’t our style to sit around and wait for something to happen. We had to rethink our business which is very much an in-person, contact affair. Our classes have always been small and intimate and lively. So we had to grapple with the idea that this was about to change if not collapse.
The idea of online courses is not new and we had in the past had clients who asked us if we offered such a thing. At the time we didn’t have the time and it didn’t feel as it is was our style at all. But then COVID came and new and old ideas had to be put on the table. We are testing the idea to see how receptive people would be without us losing our soul, so to speak. We still want the class sizes to be small – not 15 people in a class because it is exhausting not just for the chef but for the participants. It does mean that we are pricier than many of the offers out there but it also means that we give personal attention almost as if we were standing there with them in their kitchen.
Based on the new offering (online classes), what are you seeing in terms of delivery, how has the shift to online first, changed?
With the online classes thus far, we have been able to reconnect with past clients who have not had the opportunity to make it back to France but who after having had a wonderful experience with our chefs, wanted to once again experience a taste of France. Family members who are further apart these days are coming together doing something they love – together but apart. We have the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States separated by a 3-hour time zone difference, together, but online. The time zones do present a challenge but we are trying to put out as many offers to cover both the western and eastern hemispheres as much as is feasibly possible. So our classes are offered at times that would work for the US (our biggest market), but also for our potential clients in Australia/New Zealand and Asia.
Do you see yourselves continuing to expand the online side of the business after things come back to normal?
This is a tough question to answer right now mainly because we have no idea what “normal” will look like. As I said, we have always offered classes to small groups of people. We hope that people will come back in-person. We’ve even lowered our prices to encourage them to do so, while still keeping the maximum number of participants per class low. The online classes come with great benefits and different challenges. If the demand is there, well, why not continue in some form or another to offer them. This will likely be on a smaller scale in terms of Cook’n With Class but who knows, it may be a different business adventure on the horizon.
What do you perceive as your biggest professional success?
We went from a 1 chef 30m2 kitchen studio offering 2 classes to a 250m2 two-floor, 3 kitchen school with multiple chef instructors all sharing their passion for French cuisine with lessons in French bread, macaron, baguette, sauce making, and our always popular French Market class. We’ve weathered many storms during that time and have persevered. We are not afraid of rethinking how we do things and reinventing ourselves as necessary. Eric was the first French chef to offer French cooking classes taught in English and while many others have come after – some chefs, some not, the fact that this is a school run by a professional cook speaks volumes about the quality of what you get. People come to have fun and they do while leaving with new skills and greater knowledge applicable to furthering their kitchen know-how.
And now the hard one, what would you say is the biggest hardship that you had to go through professionally?
Our company faced a huge financial challenge a few years back after the terrorist attacks in Paris. We lost over 40% of our business revenue and it put us both professionally and personally in an extremely difficult place.
When we were just getting back on our feet and turning the numbers around, we were hit with another event in France that was out of our control. Then came COVID-19 which now – to date represents a loss well over the previous 40%. These were all events that were impossible to anticipate. It put a lot in question. Since I sold my vacation rental company back in 2013, I have essentially been working with the cooking school first part-time then over time so we are both, under one household tied to this thing. It has proven to be extremely rewarding and challenging. We hope to bounce back. We will bounce back. Maybe it won’t be exactly as it was before but it will still represent who we are and I’m confident that there are clients who will stick by us.
What has being a business owner taught you about the way you approach life problems?
Every problem is an opportunity to grow. It is awful when things don’t go according to plan but after you lick your wounds, you roll up your sleeve and you get back to work. You have to. This is your baby. You have to nurture the things you love and you have to love the things you nurture. I am generally on plans B, C, & D when Plan A starts to go awry. And Eric is never short on “crazy” ideas. In that regard (among many others), we make a great team.
When it comes to being a founder and CEO, what gets you out of bed every morning?
I’d be disingenuous if I said that every day I am bouncing out of bed eager to face the day’s challenges. There are good days and bad days but when I’m ready to leap, what gets me up is my son. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like a very business-minded response but what we do is as much for him as it is for us. If we succeed, he succeeds because we will be able to provide for him the life we dream of not with all the frills but with a quality of life we have come to love. So I get up and I continue to oil the machine to show him that we are not quitters.
What one piece of advice would you give founders starting today?
Make a plan. Embrace the plan and be prepared to change it if not completely, then partially because you can’t anticipate everything and you have to either be willing to bend or find that you will break.
Lastly, anything awesome to say specifically to the new female founders out there?
I have never really thought of myself as being different in my business endeavors because I am a woman but being a mom and running a business has been both challenging and rewarding. Don’t feel guilty because you decided to put your child first and don’t feel guilty because you put all that energy into making your business work. You don’t have to make a choice. It isn’t one or the other. You CAN make it work.