The Mise en Place of Chef Vawanda Richardson
By Anita Ward, Operation HOPE
Close your eyes and imagine an aromatic kitchen where the flavors of the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Asia are fused. Nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, and cloves marry beautifully with basil, oregano, and rosemary. Fresh ginger root, lemongrass, and lime leaves create a giant melting pot of savory flavor – bold, spicy and fresh – just like Chef Vawanda Richardson whose capable hands and caring heart bring these disparate cuisines into melodic gastronomic harmony.
Chef V grew up with a passion to cook. She watched Julia Childs with her aunt who was always in the family kitchen stirring up concoctions in stovetop pans, frying fish outside and baking sweet memories. Little Vawanda served as her sous chef soaking up every recipe and testing each sauce, dish, and dessert before serving them to the rest of the family. Weddings, birthdays, and holidays found Vawand beside her aunt, apron to apron, experimenting with new ways to turn their love for family into a dish from the heart. So, by the time she was 12 Vawanda longed for a crockpot and culinary tools – not the cell phones and tablets coveted by her generation.
Chef V’s journey to executive kitchens was unorthodox. Her high school love for science, biology and chemistry took V to nursing school and a career as a patient care technician in nursing homes and oncology centers. She wanted to be a surgeon, but the cost of medical school and the need to support her young family – she’s now a mother of four – put that dream out of reach for the 22-year old.
Resilient and determined, Chef V shares, “I decided to find my happiness”.
Not too proud to begin wherever necessary to cultivate her restaurant chops, Vawanda joined Sodexo where she quickly progressed to a line cook at Chow Hall. She also learned the front of house and retail management as an Assistant Manager at Taco Bell. After a few years, she pursued her dream of culinary success and often lamented, “I’m 24 and so behind.”
Where to next? For Vawanda, the next step in her career meant competing for a position with the best. Against all odds she auditioned for an apprentice position at the famed Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. The apprenticeship program was a 3-year stretch that would be difficult to pull off with a family back in Atlanta, so she took a position as a banquet chef. This intense hands-on training program is not for the untrained or the faint of heart. It challenges Chefs from all over the world in classical, modern and food production techniques. Completely self-trained, Vawanda competed against hundreds of applicants, most with formal culinary school training. Unnerved by the situation, she successfully proved her skills and found herself the only African American woman in a kitchen led by Certified Executive Chef Brian Skelding, What intimidated Chef V the most? “They were working with tweezers! I was terrified!” Vawanda might have been terrified, but she was undaunted. She began in banquets, moved quickly to the grand dining room, and eventually opened the golf club and dining for the Greenbrier.
Returning to Atlanta Vawanda landed a Sous Chef position at Atlanta’s very distinguished Commerce Club. Chef V again redefined her success. Growing up in the shadows of entrepreneurs in construction, painting and auto mechanics, she always knew that fulfilling her ambitions meant having a business and a restaurant of her own. While serving as Executive Sous Chef for Centurion Restaurant Group at Punch Bowl Social in the Battery, Vawanda launched a catering business, a nonprofit, a bottled pepper sauce, and a book for busy working mothers.
Chef V’s dreams required more than her passion and ambition. She needed the entrepreneurial knowledge and foundation for running a business. As fate would have it, Vawanda also wanted a home for her growing family, and it was that desire that brought her to Operation HOPE where she enrolled in the HOPE Inside entrepreneur training program to access the knowledge and capital necessary to expand her businesses. Chef V’s one-year plan is to leverage her catering business, Taste Atlanta, LLC, and sales of her delicious pepper sauce, to grow her nonprofit, Little Chefs, Inc. Children in underserved communities live in culinary deserts where fast foods prevail and nutritional knowledge is lacking. Chef’s goal is to expand her 12 week nutrition program for inner city kids introducing them to different cuisines, vegetables, foods, and even career paths in culinary.
Jack Ma introduced his measure of leadership – LQ – the love quotient as critical to servant leadership and success. Chef V defines what Ma intended. She gives and loves and leads from the heart. She deserves the attention and support of the Atlanta leadership, finance and culinary communities. This is the legacy of civic leadership – a sustainable community of passionate entrepreneurs who give back. Chef V sets the bar high, and her jerk chicken risotto is a feast for the senses that shows respect for culture and technique while delivering a taste that shares her love of life.
Mise en place is a French culinary phase for “everything in its place”. Technically, it is a method to assist with organizing and preparing ingredients to maximize taste and deliver an extraordinary and delightful experience. For Chef V, mise en place is much more. It is her way of life – everything in its place and everything in her heart.