Her New Flock

Culinary Pioneer Trades Chef Whites for Chicken Coops

Jill Prescott’s love of cooking came from something as simple as a pile of mud. She remembers sitting in the backyard of her childhood home in Wisconsin, scooping up piles of dirt and mixing in water, all the while pretending her concoctions were the makings of an elaborate feast.

She was just three years old, but she knew that transforming raw ingredients into something larger made her sincerely happy. She had no idea that she would go on to create a nationally known culinary school, host a PBS cooking show, and become a personal friend of the late, famed chef Julia Child.

Short Order Chefs

Prescott learned the fine art of cooking during an intensive six-month trip to France in her late 30s. Her father had recently passed away and left her funds with specific instructions to pursue her life-long love of French cooking. Prescott had four children at home, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity. 

237A7927.jpg

So off she went to Paris. She studied at some of the country's top culinary schools and immersed herself in the food, wine, and culture of France. She returned to her family in Wisconsin and founded Jill Prescott’s Ecole de Cuisine in Milwaukee in 1986.

The school, in operation for two decades, was a professional culinary academy geared toward home cooks who wanted to learn the secrets of cooking like a chef in a matter of hours or days. Her students, often lawyers and businesspeople, left with the skills they needed to prepare restaurant-quality French dishes at home — a unique idea in a culinary landscape that was decades away from celebrity-chef culture.

Pajama Party with Julia Child

The late chef Julia Child heard about Prescott’s school through a professional organization and left a message on Prescott’s answering machine during the school’s early years. Prescott and her staff thought a Milwaukee restaurant critic (who was known for his Julia Child impression) was playing a joke on them. A few days later, a book signed by Child arrived with the message, “I understand you have a beautiful little school. I’d love to see it sometime.”

Child visited Prescott’s school and the pair quickly became friends. When Child came to Ecole de Cuisine as a guest instructor, Prescott stayed in an adjoining hotel room to help her feel welcome. Prescott remembers climbing into bed after an exhausting day and hearing a knock at the door. She heard Child saying in her iconic voice, “You know, Dearie, I’ve got all this wine in my room. Let’s drink some.” They sat on the end of the bed in their pajamas and drank wine late into the night. Prescott remembers thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I’m having a pajama party with Julia Child.”

Child remained in Prescott’s life, offering business advice as the school grew. A PBS show (also called Jill Prescott’s Ecole de Cuisine), a cookbook, and a larger school in Chicago followed. It was an exciting time for Prescott, but also a stressful one. “I look back at my career and how much I loved it,” she says. “It was hard to come down from flying high all the time and being so revved.”

After some serious health setbacks and a conflict with investors, Prescott left her school and the culinary world behind. She moved to Napa Valley to study wine before hearing about Asheville’s sustainable-food culture. She had never visited North Carolina, but decided to buy a small brick home in West Asheville sight unseen. It was a move that allowed her to recover from a benign but quickly spreading brain tumor while easing into retirement. 

From Copper Pans to Chicken Wire

Prescott is now the organizer of the Asheville Chicken Club “Coq au Vin.” The club hosts events like coop tours, potlucks, and chats with notable local chickeners (see “Squawk Talk”). Prescott’s own chickens serve as an inspiration for the group, but she doesn’t claim to be an expert.

Instead she describes herself as more of a facilitator with a genuine love for her flock of 14 rare-breed chickens that cluck and coo outside her window. Some bask in the sun while others watch over the baby chicks. Much like Prescott herself, the birds are free to pursue their whims.

“I’m happy just being content,” Prescott says as she pulls a pan of scratch-made cinnamon rolls from the oven. As the steam rises to meet her face, it’s clear why Prescott chooses the quiet comforts of home over the chaos of the culinary world.

“I spent my life in either chef whites or dressed to the nines,” she remarks. “This,” she says while looking down at her simple striped cotton shirt, “This is me."

Verve Magazine  June 2014

Photos by Tim Robison