A CULINARY adventurer tells SARAH HUDSON how he somehow kept bread on the table.
Irish rocker Bono, former US President Bill Clinton and the Dutch royal family are among those who have dined on Jason Van Leuven's culinary creations.
The Naracoorte pastry chef and chocolatier has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and top eateries from Sydney to Mauritius.
But despite this impressive resume, the 35-year-old says he has come close to losing everything and, despite the rise of the celebrity chef, the industry is one of the toughest to succeed in.
"It's like we've had to start all over again three times. It's not bad luck, it's just the way the market has gone in the last five years, across the board," Jason says.
"As my dad says, an idiot could have made money from 2000 to 2007, but if you can survive when times are tough - like it has been with the GFC (global financial crisis) - you'll be able to survive when times are good."
Straight-talking Jason grew up in Naracoorte, in South Australia, to a family of Dutch East Indies migrants - "food was important to our family because it's when we came together, to eat, talk and share".
At 18 he studied cookery in Mt Gambier and decided pastry - with its associated skills in chocolate and ice-cream - was his calling.
"Pastry is where my passion is, it's the only part of the food industry I'm really interested in," Jason says.
"It's more of a science. You can be creative with flavour, texture, design, you use feeling and touch, whereas with other cooking you are more limited."
He landed increasingly impressive jobs, from Lasseters Casino in Alice Springs, across to Ireland and a Michelin two-star restaurant (where Bono was a weekly customer), home to Sydney (running the pastry kitchen and catering for the likes of Bill Clinton and George Bush senior), via Hayman Island and finally the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius.
"I was on Mauritius two years and it was my job to open the pastry kitchen in the resort and teach the staff pastry," Jason says.
He made creme brulee for the Dutch royal family and shared a beer while watching rugby with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
It was also in Mauritius he met his French wife, Sylvie, and it was when they were expecting their first child that they made the decision to return to Naracoorte.
"The bank here wouldn't give us money for a business, so we opened the business out of home, working with what we had - $5000 and chocolate-making tools."
Initially Van Leuven Chocolatier produced just one chocolate bar, then moved into truffles.
"We worked on a shoestring. We had no machinery and made everything by hand. I worked 18 hours a day, made the chocolate, packed everything and then drove around selling it. It was very tough," Jason says.
"But because of the GFC chocolate sales went down so we started selling sourdough."
Jason made the bread, then sold it across the west coast of Victoria.
Yet unfortunately this business also struggled.
"So we made the move into retail. We could have gone broke either way - staying with the bread and chocolates or taking the risk of opening a shop."
Thankfully, Van Leuven Culinaire has been a success.
"When we opened we planned for the worst-case scenario.
"Although if you don't plan for success it can be worse because we had to expand quickly."
Van Leuven Culinaire sells pastries, sourdough and chocolate, with the biggest seller its vanilla slice, (in French pastry tradition called mille feuille).
Traditional steak and kidney pie and pork terrines are also popular.
Its most unusual creation is a passionfruit curd tart with jasmine tea meringue, and Jason admits his favourite items to make are the pain au chocolate, Danish pastries and croissants - with 1kg of butter to 3kg of dough.
"Coming back home from overseas was a culture shock, but at the same time it's been rewarding," he says. "I don't think in any small business you ever feel like you land on your feet.
"But I love the pain. I love the challenge. I'm happier when I'm always asking myself how to get customers in."
- Van Leuven Culinaire, Naracoorte, vanleuven.com.au or phone (08) 8762 3836.