I am on a career change process, so I am fascinated by people who have had success changing careers into the culinary world or by people who have just always lived it and love it. So in this post I am going to start a project whereby I’ll be talking to people who help me indulge in that fascination. Let’s call it “Dishing With…” My first “target” is Craig Vanis.
Just about anyone who meets Craig Vanis is bound to come to the conclusion that he is someone you want to get to know. I first met him at an open house for The Natural Epicurean where he talked about his career in food, his experience at the school, and generally gave the attendees the impression that they could achieve their food goals, no matter how lofty. Wanting to dig deeper, I decided to meet up with Craig for coffee and get to know him better.
As background, Craig is currently the head chef at Veggytopia, a vegan meal delivery service here in Austin. He has worked at Beets Cafe, as well as done work with raw and vegetarian food in Houston. He’s a graduate of The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts and an all-around nice guy. I visited him at the Veggytopia kitchen and he seemed to do a great job directing traffic and keeping his team moving on task.
Here’s what we talked about:
Mike Lyons: What were you doing before you came to culinary school at The Natural Epicurean?
Craig: I went to school and had a short career as an engineer. The schooling was fine but I didn’t really enjoy the jobs at all. Towards the end of my school, I started learning more about food, why we eat what we eat, how it comes to be, and how food affects us. And the more I learned the more I knew that’s where my passion was. And the more I felt I had to do something. I wasn’t doing enough. I felt this urge to be doing more. In February 2009 my entire department got laid off and took that as the greatest day of my life. I said I’m just going to do jobs I want to do from now on. In April 2009, I walked into a cafe that was opening, right off the street. I got into sweeping and painting right away. By July I was managing the kitchen, had my own menus out, and was running the show.
ML: Had you been doing a lot of home cooking before that?
CV: Absolutely. I had cooked and was passionate, but that was my first restaurant job.
ML: Can you share any keys to going from guy-right-off-the-street to manager of your own kitche?
CV: Work very long days. I worked very hard. Have an “I can do anything attitude.”
ML: What led you to The Natural Epicurean?
CV: I left the restaurant to work for an artisan bread baker. After that I was working with raw food in Houston doing farmers markets, and during my off time also at a vegan bakery doing cookies and cupcakes. I felt I was kind of plateauing and wanted to learn more. I knew a traditional cooking school was not for me and was happy to find a plant-based school in Austin. It seemed like a no-brainer to do it.
ML: What’s a typical day for you?
CV: Yesterday I helped all the delivery drivers get their food out for Veggytopia and started working on the menu for next week. I got that published today. I checked with the local farmers to see what they have available, which influences what I add or remove from the menu. Tomorrow I’ll do produce and dry goods ordering. The rest of the week is preparing for events, future menus, recipe testing, networking and looking for venues to sell our baked goods, especially the gluten free stuff we’re doing now. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are 10-12 hour days of cooking non-stop, and that’s what gets delivered for that week to our clients.
Below: Craig, using his mental powers to command green beans to combust in the Veggytopia kitchen.
ML: Are there any prospects for Natural Epicurean graduates to be connected with Veggytopia?
CV: Three Natural Epicurean grads are working there now, of the four people we have working each weekend. We just started going to San Antonio, so as that takes off we’ll just be getting bigger.
ML: What’s your favorite thing about your current work?
CV: I love restaurant work and I miss it a lot of times, but my current work is different every week and I enjoy that.
Below: Um, let’s just say Veggytopia is not a small operation. They are putting out some serious volume from their kitchen in Kyle, TX.
ML: What’s in demand, what’s hot right now?
CV: Gluten-free is very hot right now. There’s also room for people to be cooking with no oil added, which is something that Natural Epicurean grads are especially skilled at.
ML: What’s tough about your work?
CV: I have worked very hard, but I get to wake up every day and cook food. It’s never that bad. I feel lucky every single day.
ML: Where do you see yourself going?
CV: The goal since before I even made the career transition was to someday have a restaurant. Right now it’s a lot of continuing to grow, find, and express my own culinary voice. There’s so many things out there that I really enjoy. The part of the job that’s new each week – that’s my favorite because I continue to learn and practice. I’m just building my knowledge and resume as an accomplished chef.
ML: What advice do you have for career changing cooks?
CV: Have the audacity to ask questions. In school, when you’re looking for an externship, when you have a new product to sell…there’s never any harm in just asking ridiculous questions of people. If they tell you “no,” it’s not a personal thing. You’ll be surprised with what you get out of it.
ML: Was there anyone or thing which was really instrumental in getting you to where you’re at now?
CV: I got a book by Isa Chandra Moskovitz, Vegan with a Vengeance. I was taking a flight from Houston to Boston.and I took it on the plane. I remember having a moment of thinking “Yeah I can do this food thing and cook for a living. It’s not a crazy idea.” It was a big moment. Pat Greer, who does raw foods in Houston was just a tremendous person to have had in my life at that time. My parents have been very proud of me, so that feels very good, too.