Written by Patty Rasmussen Thursday, September 01 2011
Snapshot: Vanessa Cantave, chef
New York City has served as inspiration for many things – plays, music, art – but Vanessa Cantave, personal chef and caterer, credits the Big Apple for her career change and success, personally and as a business owner.
In 2005, Cantave realized her career in advertising wasn’t satisfying. What she really wanted to do was cook. With more enthusiasm than money, she went to culinary school and started YumYum Chefs, now doing business as Vanessa Cantave.
She morphed into an in-demand chef providing catering to corporate and personal clients, an expert in dining and entertaining, and, within the next year, will open her own restaurant in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
Womenetics: Who or what inspired you to leave your stable career to start your own business?
Vanessa Cantave: I credit that to New York City, but I always enjoyed cooking and cooked ever since I was a young child. I come from a Haitian family, and my parents cooked a lot at home. After I graduated from college I began my career, first in Atlanta then I moved to NYC. It’s such a dynamic city for food; it’s like being in an amusement park for food. Every night you can eat something different – Argentinean, Russian, steakhouse, Japanese; the options are so exciting. I was becoming unhappy at my (marketing) job, mainly because of the pace of working in NYC. There were times when I left work at 2 in the morning. I kept thinking, “What would I do where I would probably work crazy hours, but I wouldn’t care because I loved it so much?” I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to cook.
I researched culinary schools in the city and found one, the French Culinary Institute, that had a good reputation. I wouldn’t have to go anywhere, move anywhere, and they had a program that was less than a year. They held an open house for prospective students. I didn’t tell anyone, but I went to the open house. They sold me. After that I decided to leave my job and go to school.
Womenetics: Where did you come up with the money to do this; leave work for a year and pay for school?
Cantave: That was total naiveté. I always tell people if you knew what it was like, the financial hardship, or how hard it was to start a business, you might never do it. I think you have to have a little daring to do it. I just knew I wanted to cook. I was making just shy of $100,000. I never thought about the fact that I was 26 years old when I quit my job and went to culinary school. I lived in a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn, in DUMBO (acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).
I said things that silly people say, “I’ll just wait tables while I’m in school.” Waiting tables is hard! But I did that and would deposit my tips in the bank, had no health insurance. I had some student loans while I was in school and that helped out a little. I was also living with my brother; I had a boyfriend at the time, so there were other people contributing to the household. And I used credits cards.
It was definitely an impulse decision. Right after school I started to “‘trail,” or follow, a chef to try out a restaurant. I tried out a number of different restaurants, places I loved. They all offered me jobs, but they were offering $400 to $500 a week before taxes and the expectation was that you’d work 60 hours a week. I thought that didn’t make mathematical sense.
Right away I started getting into work as a private chef. The reality of restaurant work forced me into that work because it was the only way I could live in the same place I was living. But getting into the whole thing? I had no idea. I was completely naive. I didn’t realize that chefs didn’t make any money. I just wanted to cook.
Womenetics: How do you describe the services you offer?
Cantave: When I first started YumYum Chefs it was just personal chef services; there was me plus four other chefs I hired to work with me. I worked as the agent for them. Calls came in; I would send someone out and take a percentage of their fee. I also served my own clients. Collectively we’d do private dinners in people’s homes, private cooking classes with individuals, and weekly meal services, both personalized and general healthy food with limited menu options.
We worked alongside neighborhood CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture groups) and got fresh produce from local farms. That went really well, but with issues like delivery it ended up not being profitable. We did that for about a year and a half before I started doing private events, for example providing catering for retail events at stores.
It didn’t take long, once I did a few of those events, before my name got out there because we had a good product at a competitive price. I tried my hand at hiring my own staff, and that became super annoying; we ended up working with a staffing company that we still use to this day.
The profit went up as our retail events turned into corporate events and bigger budgets, so we moved our workspace into a certified commercial space in Hell’s Kitchen. We rented that for about a year and a half, but all the increased overhead cut into our profits, and it seemed like we were doing more work, bigger work, but making the same amount of money. That coincided with the economy going way down in 2008. We saw the effect in the events we did; in individual clients who had always spent lavishly on entertaining, the work we did in the summer in the Hamptons. Everything went upside down.
Womenetics: What changes did you make in your business in response to the recession?
Cantave: There was a moment when we could have just closed the whole thing down, but by that time a woman I’d known growing up and through college left her PR career to become a partner with me in the business. She was integral in growing the business so she had this idea for corporate lunch catering. Since businesses were downsizing their business lunches, we downsized with them. We launched YumYum To Go and linked with SeamlessWeb (a web platform) for ordering.
SeamlessWeb didn’t have a lot of caterers listed so we were able to provide a lunch service without having a storefront, and we were able to continue all our usual catering events. This turned out to be quite successful and really easy to manage, but I hated making sandwiches and salads. I felt that I didn’t go to culinary school to make sandwiches and salads. It was necessary, and it enabled us to keep our doors open and get through a really tough economic time, but in November 2010, I sold that business completely intact. They kept everything the same and so that business still lives on.
By December 2010 I realized I missed the private cooking stuff. I had drifted farther away from my original plan; all the things that had originally inspired me. My clients were starting to get back on their feet again, calling and wanting to have dinner parties. That was exciting. My business partner and I dissolved our business partnership, and I would go on to do the things I always wanted to do.
Womenetics: Where did that decision take your business?
Cantave: A friend of mine convinced me to audition for a reality show, and I did. It all happened really fast. I taped a show on BRAVO called Rocco’s Dinner Party during the first week of February. (It aired in July.) It was really cool and gave me some media, press, and a larger audience. And I won the competition. I had also talked about having a really fun place in my neighborhood, which is sort of restaurant starved, that would be a singularly focused place – sliders, French fries, beer – a neighborhood place. A friend mentioned it to her brother, and he was interested. I got a phone call in March that I had an angel investor who wanted to start this restaurant idea with me. So that’s where I am now. My business is broken into three core areas: catering events for personal and corporate clients; the part of my business that focuses on me as a culinary and entertaining expert, contributing to magazines, television; and starting this restaurant.
Womenetics: Your investor is just a financial backer, right?
Cantave: Yes, I’d be in charge of everything else. It’s very exciting. We’re still at the very beginning, and there are so many components to it. Right now we’re trying to secure the space we want, working with architects and designers, and so on.
Womenetics: Have you gotten certified as a woman-owned business? If so has it helped you grow your business?
Cantave: I did. I was really excited about the certification because I thought it would open all these doors. I went the extra mile and made sure we were certified with the state of New York and NYC. But I’ve been certified as a minority and woman- owned business for three years now, and unfortunately I never saw an additional “push” from the certification. In my experience I’ve seen a lot of those contracts go to people who already have relationships. It didn’t change my business at all.
Womenetics: Can you cite some specific examples of how your business background has helped you start and maintain your own business?
Cantave: When I was in advertising and marketing I was on the client service side so there was a way of dealing with the client side of things that has served me well.
One thing we hear all the time is that people liked working with us because we were friendly, nice, and our pricing was transparent. I always give people a line item invoice showing how much their food is, the service; I did that because that’s how we did things with our clients in advertising.
And the part about being friendly, I had clients tell me that they’d used caterers who told them what they thought the client should have. I figured the client had an idea of what they wanted; we wanted to know their vision was of their event.
We customized even though it put a lot more work on our end, but it made more sense to me. It was very rare that we’d present a proposal that was turned down, and not one time have we done a tasting with a client that they didn’t book us. And knowing when to pull the plug on things that weren’t profitable also came from being on the corporate business side of things.
Womenetics: How many employees do you have?
Cantave: I have five full-time employees. I have one sous-chef and she’s great. She works with me all the time. The rest of the employees are administrative, accountant, assistant, and publicist to promote the business and do the day-to- day operation. When it comes to executing an event, if I need additional chefs and service staff, I outsource that. But I had to learn that along the way.
Womenetics: What goals do you have for the three core aspects of your business?
Cantave: I want the restaurant to open within the next year. The restaurant is the biggest undertaking right now. I’m still doing catering and events, and that’s where I get to be the real chef inside of me. It’s what keeps me going creatively. This year we’ve started rebranding, doing business as Vanessa Cantave, and we’re relaunching our website from yumyumchefs.com to vanessacantave.com. On the media side, I would love to have a show or be a regular contributor to a magazine. I’ve already started working on a cookbook. I’ve always enjoyed the element of teaching people, even now. I love seeing messages on my Facebook or Twitter page where people downloaded a recipe and made it and loved it. That gets me very excited.
Womenetics: What do you do to relax?
Cantave: I’m into social things; being with my friends and family, cooking for them. I’m a New York person so I love going out to museums and galleries, I love fashion.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD, and Blue Ridge Country.