Christine Flynn — Executive Chef at Toronto's iQ Food Co. — has quite an imagination... and, an alternate persona. Until today, she was perhaps more widely known as the Instagram celebrity Jacques La Merde. Poking fun at chef bros and anyone who takes themselves too seriously, Flynn created, photographed, a posted a photo of a carefully plated dish every few days. The dishes were always composed of ingredients found at fast food restaurants, corner stores, vending machines, or the junk food aisle. Eater has been trying to guess Flynn's identity for months, but tonight "the shit" hit the fan and all is revealed on Top Chef. Says Flynn in an email, "I joke about how great my b-rolodex has gotten this year, but actually, I'm more excited about building an incredible FEMPIRE!!!!!" Here's Eater's exclusive interview with the woman, the myth, the legend.
What inspired you to take on this persona?
I think we all have a "Jacques" or two in our lives. There's always that one friend who puts up plates that are complete disasters, or badly lit, or overcomplicated. At the same time, these people are so proud and excited to show off their talent that its actually endearing. I wanted to channel that, and simultaneously elevate the plates and the photography to the next level.
Were you surprised to become an Instagram celebrity?
I read somewhere recently that having a lot followers on instagram is like being rich in monopoly. That's kind of how I feel about it. I didn't start creating because I wanted a lot of followers, I genuinely enjoyed making these plates and writing the captions.
Where did the name come from?
I had a sailing instructor when I was nine who would put on a beret and a striped shirt and call himself "Jacques La Merde" while teaching us how to tack and gybe. I loved it. I thought it was so funny and I guess it just stuck.
In creating this persona, how much "back-story" did you create in your head? Did it feel like acting when you'd start plating a dish, or did it feel like you being funny?
Will you believe me if I say the whole thing felt very "organic"? Jacques is just me in all caps, which is why the character is so strong and so believable. I threw in a few details (have you googled Capeside recently?) and a few mannerisms to keep it anonymous, but in general there is a lot of overlap between us. We both love food, we both jump headfirst into projects without really thinking them through, we both love Journey and Pro Wrestling.
How did you keep it a secret for so long? Did anyone know? Did anyone successfully guess on Instagram or to you in person or privately?
The secret is the best part. When I was younger it was hard to be overlooked by my peers and even by guests. I used to get really annoyed when suppliers would come and assume one of my line cooks was the chef, or when I would work events and not get the credit I felt I deserved. Say what you want, we all need a little external validation, especially working those kinds of hours. I used to overcompensate and try to let people know I had talent, that I was good at being a chef. I don't really do that since Jacques. Its like the ace in my sleeve.
The fact that no one blew my cover is surprising. I've done lots of events and shoots, and NDA or no NDA people like to talk. I've also had many friends and family members who were in on it. Not too many people have guessed, but I have been a little sloppy these past few months as it winds down. The guessers have all been chefs I respect and admire, and to my knowledge they've kept it to themselves. Its more fun that way.
Where did your inspiration for each dish come from?
Usually I would just go to my local bodega and check out what was available. I'd see something I'd never tried before (spam, pork rinds, canned vegetables, etc) or maybe something that gave me a good hit of 80s nostalgia (bubbletape, lik-m-aid, drumsticks) and I'd build up a dish from there. If you look at the dishes, they are not a random assortment; it was important to me to create something that made sense on some level. I made some plates I thought were beautiful, and others that were supposed to channel the distracted, bumbling persona of Jacques. The captions, which in my opinion were as important as the images were usually inspired by something that had happened at work, or whatever was going on in my personal life.
What about the inspiration for Jose?
José was the sleeper hit of the account. He is of course based off a real person; a quiet guy from San Salvador who worked harder, faster and more silently than anyone I've ever met. Unless you made him mad. Then he had a pretty explosive temper (which I secretly found charming). We had a mutual respect that ran deep. He once told me that I "worked really hard for a white girl" which I took as a high level compliment. In the same way we all know a Jacques, we all know a José -- the Latin workforce underpins the entire restaurant business in the US and while I wasn't expecting people to be so enamoured with him, its been heart-warming to see the response.
What has been your most-liked Instagram/dish?
Ironically I did a post while going through a pretty messy breakup that ended up w/ over 5k likes. It was a drumstick ice cream cone w/ some snackpack and crushed fruitloops and the caption was about what a terrible day I was having. People loved it.
When did media outlets start contacting you? When did Top Chef reach out?
Actually it all started w/ the Eater piece last March. I went from 6k followers to 40k in the span of a week. It was intense and a little jarring. Top Chef reached out around the same time and we end up collaborating which was a lot of fun.
Do you think you may have inspired chefs to think harder about their own egomania or the more frivolous styles of plating and menu design we've seen in the past decade?
No, not really. At least I hope not. I hope people just laughed a lot and were able to take a minute from whatever insane service they were working to enjoy a break and bond with other chefs. My goal was never to make anyone feel bad, or second guess what they do, it was just to be ridiculous. A lot of outlets have asked me to weigh in on overused trends, or make some kind of damning statement about what's played out. Who am I to judge? The wonderful thing about food is that its always changing, always evolving and that there are so many talented people who can take something that seems dated, tweak it and make it new and exciting all over again.
Who have you heard people think you are/were?
That is a long list. A long list of men actually.
Do you eat the creations you make, or taste them?
I tasted components. For me it was a bit of an education since I didn't grow up eating junk food (I was a husky kid so my parents did their best to keep me excited about baby carrots and apple slices). Some of the flavours and textures were pretty foreign to me, and I'm not sure I would want to revisit them.
Will you continue creating these dishes now that you're outing yourself?
I'm not sure. I literally have no idea what's next. But I know it will be fun.
What advice do you have for budding chefs?
Figure out what you're good at and forget the rest. Read books. Call your mother.
What's your favorite fast food restaurant?
I always make it a point to go to In and Out when I'm on the West Coast. There's something about a good burger I can't resist.
Video: 60 Second Tasting Menu, Jacques La Merde