It is easier than ever to get good food near my Brooklyn apartment. Within minutes, I can be at Grimaldi’s famous pizzeria, Peter Luger's Steakhouse, or Red Hook Lobster Pound. And yet, when I have the choice, I stay in. I like to invite friends over, be it for a dinner with my girlfriends with simple, comforting foods, a casual Sunday gathering to watch football or a cocktail party that goes late into the night. To me, nothing is better than entertaining in my home and feeding the people I love.
Since leaving my career in advertising and graduating from culinary school, I have worked as a chef, caterer and entertaining expert based in Brooklyn, New York. This means that I spend most of my time thinking about, shopping for, cooking and schlepping food I prepare for other people. Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. But what I love more than anything else is cooking on my own stove, setting the table with my plates and napkins and welcoming my friends and family.
A Culinary Adventure
My parents, Herve and Renee Cantave, were born in Haiti. They moved to New York City in 1967 and 1969, my father to Brooklyn and my mother to Queens. To my parents—who had grown up in the same Petionville neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti - New York City was an amazing and endlessly exciting place. My mother still remembers her early years in New York well, especially her fascination with supermarkets. As a 19-year old working in the accounting department for Blue Cross, my mother and her cousin followed the same Friday-afternoon ritual week after week: After depositing their paychecks and reserving enough money for a week’s worth of subway tokens they headed straight to the market. The variety and sheer volume of food available in New York supermarkets fascinated my mother, still at that time a recent immigrant from a poor country. The markets became her amusement park—the spices, fish, meat, fruit and vegetables that were so abundant and new. The best part was that she could buy almost anything she wanted with her own money.
Meanwhile, my father lived what was essentially the working bachelor life in a small efficiency apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He did not have a stove to cook on or his own bathroom. So naturally, he relished eating out, though on a very tight budget.
“I could get a plate of pork fried rice, an egg roll and a soft drink for $.99!” He loves that, even today. Apparently, in the ‘70s, restaurants in New York charged sales tax for anything over $1.00. In protest, my father’s favorite Chinese take-out joint offered this special deal. This made my father a happy man. In 1970, my father joined the Army and was shipped off to Frankfurt, Germany. Her returned to New York City to celebrate the Christmas holiday in 1971. His younger sister came from Montreal to visit him during this holiday season. When she arrived in the city she asked her friend to drive her to Brooklyn to see her brother who had just returned from Germany. Her friend was my mother. My father says he fell for her right away. He pestered her for months to go out with him, and she finally did. They quickly married, had my brother and were shipped back off to Germany. I was born in Washington DC 4 years later. After 6 months, we would move back to Europe. This time, to Mons, Belgium where I lived until I was almost 6-years old. As a child I spoke mostly French and enjoyed many local dishes. Nutella with toast and breaded veal were two of my favorite foods. I also savored escargot and grilled bratwurst.
My family moved back to the states in 1982 to an Army base just outside of Chicago. I remember that my bedroom window overlooked Lake Michigan, and I remember the “luxury” appliances in our new kitchen. We had a refrigerator AND a full size freezer, plus a dishwasher and, eventually, a microwave oven—the first for my family. My mother and I enjoyed baking in that kitchen – and did so often. One Christmas, we even attempted a gingerbread house.
I eventually got up the courage to attempt dinner on my own. I was in the fourth grade—9 years old—and had checked out “The Holly Hobby Cookbook” from the local library. I decided on a menu of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas that I would make entirely from scratch. I started as soon as I got home from school. My brother, who is four-and-a-half years older than me, supervised (in brother code that means: make sure Vanessa doesn’t burn the house down). It was a good thing he was there; some of the recipes included fractions and we hadn’t yet learned fractions in school.
When my parents came home, I showed them to their places and served my first cooked meal. Of course they gushed like it was the best meal they had ever eaten. To this day I do not know if it was that delicious or warranted such praise. It does not really matter. What I remember is the feeling of pride and joy that I experienced at having cooked dinner for my family. This feeling is still with me today, after all the years.
My world-traveling parents were my first real culinary teachers. My maternal grandmother, who I called Man (mama) Luce, was my second. Man Luce lived with us throughout my entire life. She would stay with us half the year, splitting the remainder of her year between her other children’s homes and her own apartment in Flushing, Queens. She was and will always be the most graceful woman I have known. My grandmother was a stunning woman. In her younger years, she resembled a Hollywood starlet. She was thin, bi-racial (her father was French and her mother Haitian) and stood at 5’4”. Although, Man Luce was not wildly adventurous in the kitchen, she loved Haitian food and cooked it well. She moved to NYC from Haiti in her late 50’s and spent her whole life eating only Haitian food. I have few memories of her eating other food (maybe if we were having a backyard barbeque, she would indulge in a hot dog), for the most part her diet remained consistent. Growing up, she was always cooking something for me and my brother. I would race into the house after school where she was waiting for me. I remember giving her a big hug and telling her about my day. By 4:00p she would change into one of her cotton “house dresses” and start dinner. I would often ask to be her “taster” which she obliged. I especially liked her rice and beans, which we ate everyday. You would be surprised at how many different ways Man Luce could cook rice, beans, plantains, beef, chicken, salted codfish and pork—the staples of Haitian cuisine. She loved to make “legumes” (stewed vegetables) which are still my favorite. I remember she enjoyed boiled plantains with every meal (not like the sweet fried variety you usually find at Caribbean restaurants). Every Friday we ate fish. Usually salted cod, but sometimes red snapper. I still enjoy the familiar flavors of tomato, onion, garlic and habanero pepper.
Her cooking style, like her personal style, was what we would call classic—natural, straightforward and, in her own way, elegant. Man Luce cooked using only fresh, whole ingredients, completely from scratch. She was years ahead of the modern slow food movement and had no interest in fast food. She would rather put off a meal than eat something unhealthy. She lived to be 93.
Following my Passion
From the moment that I laid out my first meatloaf dinner for my family to the many days spent at Man Luce’s side watching and helping her cook, I have loved cooking for others and entertaining at my table. Meatloaf ultimately led to organizing slumber parties then birthday parties. Eventually I moved up to the big leagues—my favorite holiday of all, Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was the biggest and best meal of the year. My mother would let us use her wedding china (rimmed with gold), silverware and crystal glassware. I would consult The Good Housekeeping “Illustrated Cookbook” for instructions on how to set the table. I remember trying many elaborate ways to fold the dinner napkins. Thanksgiving brought out more than just great food, it was a real dinner party and I got to put all the extra touches to our dining room.
In high school, I took every class offered in the Home Economics department and even won “Home Ec. Student of the Year” (trust me, that is not as cool as it sounds, though I was proud). I wanted to go to culinary school in New York or maybe Paris, but my parents had other plans. They had struggled to make a life for my brother and I without the benefit of college degrees (my mother later completed her B.S. at the age of 46). I had learned how to work hard, but they wanted me work smart. So, I attended a good in-state school: James Madison University.
In college, I found myself cooking for my roommates and sorority sisters. I attended college in a smallish town in Virginia called Harrisonburg. Not the kind of place where you can explore many cuisine types, but I made due. My best friend found a tiny family-owned Indian restaurant in town and we would often duck out to enjoy some great food. Since living in NYC, I still think that place served some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten.
But like most college kids, those four years consisted of lots of pizza, beer and burgers. Luckily, I had Winter and Summer breaks back home to enjoy cooking and eating with my family. In 1999 I graduated from college, earning a B.A. in Political Science and minor in French. From there, I held many positions in banking, then marketing and advertising. I lived outside of Washington DC, then Atlanta Georgia. Although I was working and thriving in the corporate world, cooking remained my passion. I prepared dinner at home at least 4 nights a week and always hosted a big Sunday dinner for friends. I loved selecting wine for my dinners and creating flower arrangements. Sundays were my favorite day of the week.
In 2004 I accepted a position with a major advertising agency in New York City. I remember falling in love with New York City as soon as I got there. No, it was not the late 60’s and I had not just emigrated from Haiti, but I understood, finally, the feelings of excitement and wonderment that my parents felt when they first moved to New York. Part of my job was to entertain clients which meant lots of dinners. Right away, I was eating at some of the best restaurants New York City had to offer. And NYC chefs were far more adventurous than in Atlanta. I remember eating at a very popular gastropub in the West Village. Braised, then deep fried pig’s ear? It was delicious. And the ethnic cuisine was amazing and so accessible. One day, I would be enjoying a pastrami sandwich at an old Polish deli for lunch, then Lebanese mezze platters for dinner. I even found an authentic Haitian restaurant! On the weekends I found myself at the Union Square farmer’s market or Chelsea market. And just like that I reinstituted Sunday dinners with a new crew of friends. I was even more inspired than ever.
One day, six months into my new job as a high-powered ad executive, I left work early. I had read about an open house at the French Culinary Institute. I snuck out. I told no one. It was amazing. I knew that very night that I had to do it. I needed to follow my passion. After being accepted into the program at FCI and being placed on a waitlist for an official start date, I quit my job in advertising. I got a job waiting tables at a swanky Park Avenue restaurant and waited for the school to tell me when I could officially start. Three months later, a girl dropped out and my start date was official.
Culinary school was the definition of following my bliss. My classmates, the instructors, the food. It was all amazing. I didn’t miss one day. And when it was over, I graduated with the highest GPA. I was elated. And validated. I had done the right thing.
It’s been ten years since that day and I never looked back. Becoming a chef was the best (and scariest) decision I have ever made. I decided to work as a private chef and caterer, instead of in a restaurant, because I love giving people the experience of a wonderful meal. This means more than delicious food. It means choosing the right menu, table settings, the music, flowers and cocktails for a one-of-a-kind evening. As I like to say: Love is in the details.
So while my love and passion is in food an entertaining, my whole heart belongs to Christian Kelly! He was born June 21, 2014 and has given me more joy than I can even put into words. He's a smart, determined, silly, busy, funny, curious and outgoing baby. And while I'm never at a loss for inspiration living in NYC, he gives me a renewed sense of wonder, excitement and joy.
He's living proof that you never know what blessings are waiting for you just around the corner!