CNM Graduate Jean-Marie Ruffe shares his story

CNM Vegan Natural Chef Graduate Jean-Marie Ruffe opened the first authentic vegan restaurant, JS The Garden, on the French Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe. We interviewed Jean-Marie to find out how he came up with the concept, the steps he took to set up the business and what he has learnt along the way.

Tell us about the concept behind JS The Garden?

My wife Sara and I were discussing our aspirations for the future and what we would like to achieve. We were planning to move to Guadeloupe (where I’m from) but we wanted a project to work on while there. I’ve always been passionate about food and saw myself as a chef and running my own business one day.

There were no authentic vegan restaurants in Guadeloupe, especially not with a naturopathic ethos, so we decided to create one! We aim to lead customers towards better health by offering nourishing dishes made with locally sourced, unrefined, organic ingredients. Every meal we serve in the restaurant is made with thought and care, offering customers unique flavours they may not have tried before. There is an organic market five minutes away from us that offers a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables and other local produce.

Our dishes are a fusion of flavours from different countries around the world. Quite often, I’m merging English, Indian and Caribbean flavours together to offer a unique take on a dish. Yams grow in abundance in Guadeloupe, but many people don’t like them, so I thought – how can I make yams tastier and appealing so that people want to eat them? I created a gratin using yams, almonds and mushrooms with a basil sauce. People love it, and it’s one of the most popular dishes on our menu!

Dhal is another favourite dish we offer; however, it’s not the same dhal you would find in an Indian restaurant in the UK. I’ve created my own version of it using a range of different flavours.

Studying the Vegan Natural Chef course at CNM exposed me to different cooking styles and dishes. All the lecturers had different experiences, and I learnt new skills from each one of them. Doing my practical experience at 222 Vegan, one of the best vegan restaurants in London, enabled me to expand my skill base further.

Our clientele is a mix of professionals and tourists. Most customers aren’t vegan, but the thought of having food prepared by a vegan chef is appealing to them, so they pop in to find out more. We are located five minutes from a business and commercial centre so we get a lot of traffic from there.

What steps did you take to get the business started?

Before moving to Guadeloupe, we did a lot of planning and research before the restaurant concept was fully formed. When we were in a place to start bringing the concept to life, we approached the Chamber of Commerce in Guadeloupe to present our idea. They loved the concept and allocated us a business mentor to work with for one year. Our mentor helped us work on the idea and create a strong business plan. Their support and advice were invaluable, highlighting areas we needed to work on to put our business in a strong position.

We approached the local bank for a business loan to get the business off the ground. The bank granted the loan as they loved the idea and that we were bringing something new to Guadeloupe.

The restaurant has been running for four months now and we are full most days. The feedback from customers has been incredibly positive and encouraging – people love what we’re doing.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

Every day is different, but I usually arrive at the restaurant early (around 6 am) to start the food prep. I begin cooking for service at around 9:30 am as the doors open at 12pm. During service, I like to talk to customers as much as possible to hear their feedback on the dishes and find out what they think about our concept. Customers love it when I talk to them and they’re always positive about our future plans. After service, it’s time for washing up, cleaning, preparing for the next day and other admin tasks. Some days I head to the market to buy produce and to get inspiration for new dishes. As we’re getting so busy, we are in the process of looking for staff to assist during service.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

The realisation that we had to adapt our vision to what was realistically possible. We had to tweak things as we went as some of our ideas weren’t feasible. When you develop a business, you need to be flexible and willing to adapt your ideas. The other challenge was being patient as we had to wait a long time before our restaurant came to fruition – it was two years in total. There were many unexpected issues along the way. We also had re-acquaint ourselves with the French system which is very different to in the UK.

What has been the highlight of running your own restaurant?

The positive feedback we’ve received and seeing the reaction customers have to our dishes has blown us away. People in Guadeloupe love meat, and the French culture is carnivorous, so we didn’t know how people would react to a vegan restaurant. We had a few sceptics in the beginning but these customers have turned out to be regulars. People are becoming more aware of health and interested in healthy food. As a result, there has been an explosion of organic shops in the area.

Hearing customers say they feel good and don’t experience bloating after eating our food is music to my ears. We have lots of regular customers and we attract new customers every day. Empty plates keep coming back to the kitchen so this can only be a good sign!

People always ask me where I did my training and my answer is – The College of Naturopathic Medicine, one of the best vegan cooking schools in London. I wear my Vegan Natural Chef title with pride.

What is your favourite dish to cook?

Dhal and Mauritius roti is my favourite dish to cook as I love curry. This dish is simple and delicious made with lots of herbs. Customers love it too! The yam gratin dish is another favourite of mine. Our menu offers three entrees, three mains and three desserts. I like to change one dish on the menu each day so there is a different entrée and main meal for customers. We also offer a dish of the day which is a special dish I like to prepare each day. Each meal is linked to a different region in the world – I like giving my customers the chance to travel with flavours.

What are your tips for someone wanting to start a food business?

Create a concept that adds value to the market – this is particularly important in a saturated market like the food industry. My qualification as a Vegan Natural Chef gave me a title and name, enabling me to bring value to our restaurant concept. Plan your idea meticulously and think about every detail. Research lots and check out your competition – what are they offering and what can you offer that is unique? Find a mentor to help you on your journey as they can assist with overcoming challenges and bringing new insight and ideas. And most importantly, listen to your customers. Take time to ask what they like and dislike, what they think about your food and what could be done to improve dishes. This insight is invaluable and helps you to evolve and better your offering. On a practical note, you need money to inject into the business, so looking for an investor or having good savings is a must.

What advice do you wish you had been given when you started out?

Be patient as things take time. Expect lots of road bumps and delays along the way – this is normal. It is better to be well-prepared and have everything organised than rush the process and make mistakes.

What is your advice for anyone wanting become a Natural Chef?

Becoming a Natural Chef is an excellent career path for the future as more and more people want to eat healthy food that nourishes their bodies. There are plenty of opportunities for natural chefs, and it’s a great time to get into the industry