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Vanessa Cantave: The Chef Talks Cooking and Entrepreneurship

Vanessa Cantave loved cooking so much, that she left a lucrative job that was paying her in six figures to launch a career as the co-founding CEO of her own company Yum Yum NYC. But wait! Didn’t she place a check in the Political Science box in the college majors choices column? She did, but a girl is allowed to expand her mind and try new things, isn’t she?

Cooking, though, had always been a huge part of her life. Growing up Haitian, she had her share of plates of diri, sòs pwa, and legim and other assorted Haitian dishes. Her advertising career initially started in Atlanta, and then took her to New York. In 2005, Cantave decided to take a risk—a humongous risk—and opened up Yum Yum. It was not to be an ordinary restaurant. Cantave decided that she would also add an instructional component to her business, in addition to offering catering and entertainment consultation services.

In the late 2000s, in spite of the fact that the country was in a recession, Yum Yum NYC grossed $2 million dollars—thanks to prestige-building client brands like Target, Kiehl’s, Intel and Nike. As if Cantave’s cup wasn’t overflowing enough, yet another opportunity would come her way. “Rocco’s Dinner Party”, the Bravo Channel’s much-talked about cooking show was recruiting contestants in late 2010—and after being cajoled into auditioning by a friend—Cantave joined the reality show and wound up being the winning contestant!

Her participation on the show widened her already huge platform. Then Fox Business News came calling, and so did Black Enterprise, among other media outlets, who tapped her for her culinary expertise. With her own cookbook on the horizon, it is only a matter of time before Cantave achieves more milestones in her career as a chef, entrepreneur and restaurant industry mogul.

You were born in Brooklyn? And you grew up in a home with Haitian parents. What was it like? I was actually born in Washington D.C. My father was in the Army, so we moved around a lot. I lived in Belgium, outside Chicago, VA, Atlanta. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for eight years and definitely call New York City home. Growing up with Haitian parents and family was great! I think for most kids growing up with parents who emigrated to the U.S feel blessed to have two cultures to identify with. I’m American, but my upbringing, my values, my spirituality, the food I love, my energy are all rooted in Haitian culture. I’ve always felt that my family and extended family—grandparents, cousins— had a much stronger sense of togetherness than some of my American friends.

When was the last time you went to Haiti? Many years ago. 2001.

You attended the French Culinary Institute. Do you feel that attending cooking school is absolutely dispensable to the development of a chef? For me, it was an amazing experience! It allows someone with natural ability to hone and define their skills. You learn proper techniques, history, nomenclature and overall how to move in the kitchen. I highly recommend a good culinary program to those interested in becoming professional chefs.

Lots of us love to cook, but how can we take it to the next level? How can a casual cook become a chef? If a home cook would like to simply enhance their skills, they can save money by simply taking cooking lessons with a chef or attending workshops and classes. I used to teach free classes at Williams-Sonoma. My students love learning new techniques and working with fun kitchen tools.

What’s the best thing about being Haitian?  Having a strong culture to identify with besides being American. And eating Haitian food!

You left a six figures job in the world of advertising and marketing to become a professional chef. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs wishing to start something of their own, who may not necessarily have had six figures past job to cushion them? Sorry if that sounds like an insult, but I know that’s the first thing people will be thinking. No insult taken and honestly, I had no savings. I wouldn’t advise doing it my way. I just literally went for it, and didn’t think things all the way through. I just k new I wanted to be a chef and “time was a wastin”! My advice: build a strong support system of friends and family for the hard times. And be willing to start over. When you are completely switching careers you have to be willing to start at the bottom. Doesn’t matter if you were a VP in another industry. Your past experience will eventually come into play in some form or fashion, but humble yourself. Listen and learn.

What’s a typical day like for you? If there’s even such a thing as typical in your life. Every day is different! I may be meeting with clients, in the kitchen with my chefs, in the office working on sales or other business initiatives and these days I could be doing a television or magazine shoot! Never a boring day!

Who was the best cook you knew growing up? Hmm. I could get in trouble for this one! I learned from my mom, dad and maternal grandmother, but honestly each of them have different specialties, so I’ll take all three!

You graduated from James Madison University and has a B.A. in political science. You had plans to become an attorney? No. I just picked a major that I was interested in…my parents were most concerned in me graduating from college, so it never really mattered what I studied. After all, I really wanted to be a chef anyway. Do you think your parents are proud of your accomplishments? Very much. They tell me all the time. What were you like in high school? Outgoing and involved in several organizations. Gymnastics. Cheerleading. Student Government. Peer Mediator. I even won “Home Economics Student of the Year” my junior year! Ha!

And you’re working on a cookbook! Can you tell us what to expect from it?  Slowly coming along, but my future cookbook—and future restaurant—will reflect a passion of mine: New American cuisine meets Haitian. Similar to the food I prepared on Rocco’s Dinner Party. If you have a recipe of yours that you’d like to share, feel free to.

Dumb question: how is your Kreyòl tifi?  Terrible. My cousin’s make fun of me all the time. Funny thing is I understand 100%. I think I’m shy. Let’s blame my parents. [Laughter]

In 2011, you won the “Rocco’s Dinner Party” reality TV competition. Such a cool experience. I was talked into auditioning by a casting agent friend. Even though the $20K cash prize was awesome, in the end I just really enjoyed being on camera and have gone on to do much more television, and media. I also got a chance to introduce sooooo many viewers to Haitian food. So much of America thinks that all Caribbean cuisine is Jamaican. I chose to marry Haitian with Classic French and the combination was delicious. I was so pleased with what I created and now, I want to really develop this style of cooking. My future restaurant and cookbook will reflect this cuisine concept and represent everything I love about food.

Do you imagine waking up one day and not having any passion for catering, or for cooking for that matter? Impossible. Cooking and entertaining is in my bones. I may not be a caterer specifically, but no matter what I do, I will be cooking and entertaining. What’s in the plans for Yum Yum Inc? I would love to have my own television show and reach a larger audience. I am a chef, but also love teaching people how to plan every aspect of their event. I love beautiful things and I love making people happy. I would like to create a show that reflects everything I love, not just cooking.


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