– As told to Tamara Pridgett, edited for clarity
Vanessa Cantave is not only a chef, she’s a consummate entertainer, pouring her heart into the details of every dinning experience. With a Haitian-American up-bringing and a culinary education at the French Culinary Institute, Vanessa’s environments have found their way into her cuisine, albeit subtly. “My food is considered New-American,” she shares, which in a way mirrors her first generation experience.
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Profession: Professional Chef
How did you get started?
I’ve cooked forever and ever since I was a little girl. My parents are from Haiti and we ate a lot at home. We didn’t really eat out much, not even on special occasions. We would have big family dinners at home. My grandmother was living with us and she was a big influence, but both my mom and my dad are really good cooks so I was influenced by them and I just had an interest in it. I wanted to go to culinary school. [With] my parents being Haitian and having first generation born children in America (me and my brother), they really wanted us to go to what they thought was “real” college. They said culinary school was a trade school. I went to school… I had a career in finance, and then in advertising, which is what brought me to New York from Atlanta. I was in New York for not even a year before I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted to go to culinary school. So, I quit and when I was 26 years old I went to the French Culinary Institute.
What’s an average day like for you?
Right now it’s crazy because I have a baby. But before the baby… I ran a catering company. Because it’s my company, I’m also the Executive Chef. A lot of times in the morning I do administrative work—invoicing, talking to clients. I might do a site visit or I might be taking a bridal client to a rental showroom to look at touch fabric, to look at glassware and all that kind of stuff—that really happens in the earlier part of the day, usually. If we have an event, my Sous Chef will arrive typically in the late morning and she’ll get started with cooking and I’m usually around for some of that. I like to be in the kitchen—that’s why I became a chef—but owning your own company means you’re in the kitchen less and you’re doing more of the business side of it, but I like to get in there as much as I can. And I have a great rapport with her so it’s really fun.
How would you describe your cooking and entertaining style?
It’s all really laid back but incredibly thoughtful. I’m one of those people that thinks that love is in the detail. So, it doesn’t ever look or feel really fussy. But even if I’m just having some girls over for brunch I have to go over to the flower market. My linens are pressed [and] I like to have the table nice and set when people walk in the door. I just like it to look put together and relaxed, but nice and pretty. Everything is visually appealing, but in a simple way.
My food is considered New-American. New-American simply means a focus on local and seasonal fresh ingredients. I’m classically trained at the French Culinary Institute, so I have that French approach to sauces and things like that. But with New-American you’re incorporating influences from all over America and from all over the world and it’s what you’ll find everywhere.
Do you have a signature dish that friends and family can’t get enough of?
Yes, they all want to eat braised beef short ribs and it’s crazy because I’ve been making them for so many years! I still love making it but its crazy to me that everybody is always like, “can you make me the short ribs?” I’m like, “I can make other things!”
Where do you draw culinary inspiration from?
Everywhere—New York City. This is the place to be. Just being out and about. Obviously, I eat out a lot and I have other chef friends… but it’s not even just the restaurants that inspire you because every chef is inspired by what other chefs are doing. You are definitely influenced by the food that you eat, what you see, and what ingredients people are using. I read menus; I subscribed to a few different blogs; I actually don’t watch a lot of cooking shows or anything like that. I’m more influenced just by being around the city. I like to go to Bed-Stuy for Soul Food or even go up to Washington Heights for Dominican food. I like to explore different areas.
Is there such a thing as black cuisine? If so, how would you describe it?
Yeah, everybody refers to Soul Food as black cuisine. When someone says, “I’ve had black food” in the U.S. they’re absolutely referring to southern style cooking—sweet potatoes, collard greens, fried chicken, red velvet cake—and all of that and that’s absolutely black food. It’s American but it’s typically southern.
What does Haitian food have in common with American food?
Haitian food has more in common with the rest of the Caribbean. It’s more similar to Cuban food or Dominican food. It’s island food—the focus is seafood, chicken, dried fish, a lot of rice and beans, legumes and vegetables. What’s different from some of the other islands is that they [Haiti] were colonized by the French. So there’s certain things that you will find like, the French eat Ratatouille and the Haitian have their own version. I wouldn’t say Haitian food is very much like American at all, as its more [of a] blend of what you would find in the islands mixed with French influence; although, there has been some American influence. For many years I don’t think Haitians ate collard greens and things like that, and you’re seeing people eating that [collard greens] now in Haiti, which is new.
Why do you do it?
It’s so cliché but if you do what you love, then it doesn’t feel much like work. When my company fully supported me and I could just do this… it’s everything to be able to pay your rent, do what you love and work for yourself. It’s everything for me.
What are some of the ups and downs you sometimes face on the job?
Well, the ups are really happy clients—to actually change someone’s idea about something they didn’t like and you make it for them and they not only like it, they love it, and you helped to open their eyes. Just having happy clients. It means a lot to me to have people like the food.
Some of the business stuff I don’t like to do. I hate doing accounting. I hate doing that part of it but it needs to get done. There have been downs but they are learning [moments]. Sometimes crazy stuff happens but that’s part of the reason why catering can be exciting. The uncertainty sometimes [is a down]. It’s not like working a corporate job where this much money is directly deposited into your account every two weeks. There’s uncertainty. You have high seasons, you have low seasons, and just learning that and making sure you’re going to have enough business to sustain yourself.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Being able to start a family and still have my business. I looked forward to that day for so long. A lot of women in New York put off starting a family and all that and you tell yourself its because you want to get your career right and that’s why we all end up in our late 30s having babies.
What might be next for you?
I am thinking very seriously about a restaurant concept hopefully in my neighborhood.
What would you like your lasting fingerprint on the culinary scene to be?
That I cared a lot. That I cooked with love. That I was super dedicated and thoughtful with it.
Do you have any simple cooking tips for the average Jane looking to take her meals to another level?
Invest in good cookware and a really good knife.
What are your top go-to hair tips?
- Don’t let anybody else tell you how to do your hair.
- Have fun with it.
- Don’t skimp on it. It’s your hair: pay the extra for a deep conditioner. Be willing to spend more if that’s required.
Fun Fact: I used to own a jewelry company. I used to make jewelry as a side business when I was twenty-three to twenty-five.