Vanessa Cole: ‘To succeed, women must be bold, push boundaries’
Personal Chef and Lifestyle enthusiast, Vanessa Cole, known as Chef Vee, is a quintessential lifestyle brand. She delivers rich culinary and lifestyle experience. Born in the United States and raised between Lagos and London, Chef Vee’s formative years saw her develop an inclination for food, travel and lifestyle. As a renowned entrepreneur and chef, she drew inspiration from a young age with ideas of combining flavours to create explosive and exciting dishes. This has become a cerebral part of her identity as food in her home was a display of different cuisines.
Chef Vee was nurtured with food being the language of celebration and experience. She trained at the prestigious Chef Academy, London and completed further training at 2 Michelin star restaurant, Bibendum, in South Kensington London where she honed her fine dining execution and advanced culinary techniques.
Chef Vee’s niche is Euro-Asian cuisine elevated, using elements of West Africa and the African Diaspora. Her passion and dedication to the craft earned her a finalist spot at the Mastercard Cooking Competition, The Kitchen Nigeria in 2021. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for culinary.
Take us through your life’s trajectory. How did it inform your passion for culinary?
I spent most of my childhood in the United Kingdom. My family lived in the Midlands about two hours from London in the countryside. We were far away from anything exciting and Nigerian; whenever we would go to London we would bulk buy all the spices and ingredients to give us that taste of home. As a family, we were also frequent travelers as my parents aimed to expose us to many different cultures and traditions. My body was itching to leave the countryside. I then moved to London for university and I was completely blown away by the extensive array of restaurants from around the world. I think I spent 80 per cent of my money on eating out. This paired with yearly travels to different countries and sparked an interest in me to see how far you can take food and transform it. This has completely shaped my culinary journey because my cuisine is driven by incorporating Nigerian ingredients and flavour profiles with contemporary European cuisine.
How are you able to hone your craft?
Honestly, it takes passion and a genuine interest in what you’re doing to be able to hone your craft again and again. For me, my aim is to be continuously exposed to new food and new techniques. Travelling has always inspired me to try new things and see how international restaurants are keeping up. I also have a few educational apps and books I go through to keep the spirit of creativity alive. And lastly experimentation. Whenever I am home, I use the time to try new things with my loved ones. They’re my guinea pigs and they give me the most honest feedback.
How has being raised on two different continents aided your craft?
It has made me a lot more open-minded. When you stay in one place, it is very easy to stay accustomed to a certain way of things. Going back and forth between Africa and Europe has given me the ability to not just think and cook like them, but to combine, infuse and create both cuisines in one melting pot.
Would you say Nigerians are lovers of good food?
Nigerians are definitely lovers of good food. And good food is highly personal. To Nigerians, we focus on flavours, especially heat and spice. Our food is nutritious and not about aesthetics when you really look into the heart and soul of our food. It is beautiful and unique. When it comes to providing restaurant quality food for an international audience, we do have work to do and we must strive on providing a holistic experience in excellence. However, until we treat ourselves and one another with excellence, we won’t be able to excel in this service.
How would you describe your culinary skills?
Personal and intentional. I do not believe in just using a skill or technique. I do find that we are so quick to take on western techniques to validate what we are doing but sometimes it is good to think about why you do what you do and how it will elevate it. There are so many cooking techniques that Africans have created, and these can be refined to be just as elevated as western Michelin techniques. My culinary skills are rooted in what is around me, from my mother’s teachings to the Michelin restaurant. But what matters is how I use what I know to achieve the perfect dish.
What does having a luxury meal mean?
A luxury meal, to me, has to meet the following criteria; Taste, Aesthetic, Creativity, Service, and Value. Luxury is all about a holistic experience. It is past just what the food tastes like, that is what street food is for. But when I go to a high-end restaurant, I expect to be treated perfectly, to be taken on a culinary journey, and to try something that expands my mind. A lot of thought is gone into these restaurants and everything synergises. The staff are part of the experience and have a story to tell. And eating the food gives you a peep into the life of the chef. When you experience a luxury meal, it is honestly an out-of-body experience. Your mind and soul are captivated.
Share with us some of your activities and achievements in 2022?
I can say 2022 has been a grinding year for me as a chef. My aim has been to establish myself amongst the respected and I am proud to see the efforts paying off. I am nowhere near where I want to be but that is a positive thing. The only way is up! My biggest achievement this year was my international job in Doha Qatar for Naomi Campbell. I was booked for her opening event for Qatar Creates 2022 which she hosted with the royal family. I led a team from the Marriot and prepared canapes that paid homage to Nigeria using our ingredients and spices for 300 VIPs and celebrities from around the world. It was humbling to see some of the top profiles enjoy my food and see their faces light up to our exciting flavours. I successfully launched my limited podcast series on YouTube called ‘Wine and Dine with Chef Vee’ in September and I was honoured to have some really amazing guests on the show. I also successfully pulled off two private brunch events that brought over 100 women together to connect, unwind and learn from one another.
What should we expect from you in the New Year?
To be very honest with you, 2023 is very personal for me. I am going into a new chapter of my life as I am getting married. I see this new year as the one where I showcase all aspects of myself as authentically as possible. I am really coming into my own and I feel this year is the year you will experience the new with me. I aim to be confident in everything I do as I am here to conquer. I have so many ideas that I will be pushing out. Unique experiences that Nigerians deserve to experience. Just be ready to see Chef Vee around!
What sets Chef Vee apart?
Everyone has their own journey and each chef will always have their personal take on dishes. But for me, I love to create nostalgic experiences for my clients. I don’t just cook food that tastes good, my food has a rooting in everyone’s soul.. They may not have had it before but there will be a connection that is familiar to you. I love to hear, ‘that meal reminded me of this meal my grandma used to make, I don’t know how you did that.’ My culinary experience will have you eating something that looks international and different yet evokes so much home-like nostalgia.
What are the challenges you have encountered and how have you been able to surmount them in the Nigerian environment?
Nigeria comes with many challenges that are unique to who we are. In Nigeria, we definitely have a crisis with unforeseen costs and it definitely takes time to adjust. I have taught myself to be very flexible and to work with what is around me. Seasonal menus are, of course, difficult and it takes a certain creative mind to think on the spot but that’s exactly what makes dining with me exciting. My menus are dynamic and I kill two birds with one stone. I have creative menus that are also local and cost-efficient.
What lessons have you garnered over the year?
The main lesson I have learned is to not be so rigid with my plans. Since COVID-19, we understand that life can take you on a path that you wouldn’t expect. Three years ago, I didn’t know I would be a chef. But with everything you do in life, there is a reason and you will connect the dots later. So, I have learned that whatever lessons or challenges come my way, they will come around later in life. I have also learned to be patient with myself. I don’t believe in overworking. Whatever is for me will be for me. What matters is to provide your service to the best of your capabilities, and to thrive to serve others as you’d want to.
How do you get inspired and stay motivated?
My primary source of inspiration is God. He is the ultimate creator and I get a lot of my dishes from Him. Food is very spiritual and I aim to bring joy and gladness to my clients who wish to break bread together at one table. I also get motivated by carving out time for myself. My most amazing ideas and projects have come from taking time to be by myself, to regroup, recuperate and re-envision.
How can we get more women to become successful and rise to the top as you have done?
We have to be intentional not to gatekeep. We become so focused on trying to navigate a man’s world and think like a man that we forget what makes women thrive and why we need more. When men meet up, they talk about business and how to succeed. When women meet up, we tend to talk about men. We are told as women not to talk too much business but we get inspired when we motivate one another and bring people into opportunities. We must be ready to carry other women with us. In my field, I like to hire women and have women shadow them. It’s important to show other aspiring ladies that it is possible and you are there to support them. I aim to be approachable and have ladies who want to speak to me and ask me questions or come to me for advice.
What tips do you have for other women?
Have audacity. You’ll see men grab that business opportunity regardless of whether they’re capable or not. We will see the same job and know we are capable but hesitate to question if we can do the job. This is why we aren’t succeeding. Be bold, push the boundary, and say yes! Everyone is learning as they go.
How do you unwind?
I cook and I eat. Food does everything for me. It brings me to a place of feeling good, especially when I eat with other food lovers. I also am a travel addict. I love to book a weekend trip/ staycation or travel out of the country every couple of months. Taking time out of home in a new environment does wonder for the mind and body.