From Soil to City

Guest Chef Spotlight: Angel Veza

One of the best parts of working at Local Roots is that we get to work with some pretty amazing chefs. One of our favorite contributing chefs is Angel Veza. We first met Angel at an event hosted by Change Food, where Local Roots was a food sponsor. We spent the evening geeking out with Angel about ways to be more sustainable in the kitchen, and from there a beautiful partnership was born.

Angel is a local pioneer of food waste reduction. She currently works with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on designing Zero Waste Menus for hotels, and also with an organization called ReFED. Here, she’s helping to develop Stakeholder Specific Action Guides, a resource that will support corporate sustainability leaders and help them to implement and improve food waste reduction programs. Angel has also helped to bring Zero Food Waste tips to people in their homes by developing sustainable recipes for people like Local Roots.

Angel’s dedication to her craft is immediately apparent upon entering her 5th floor studio apartment in Long Island City; when I visited her home the other week, I could tell that this was a woman deeply involved in the culinary arts. Small pots of herbs lined her wall-to-wall windowsills and cookbooks were stacked on her dining room table. “I always start developing recipes by doing some research,” she had explained to me. “If I’m ever stuck, I often use two reference books: The Flavor Bible and The Food Lab.” Today’s dish would feature golden summer squash, and indeed, these two books lay open to the pages referencing squash and zucchini.

As Angel began preparing her dish – thinly slicing the squash (stems and all) and expertly dicing fresh garlic – we chatted about her past and how she got to become such a pro in the kitchen. Angel heralds from Elizabethtown, KY, but her parents originally emigrated from the Philippines. “I feel like I’m this awesome hybrid of Southern and Filippino,” she said. “At times, I’m talking in a country accent, singing country songs, and craving Cracker Barrel. Other times, I’ll catch myself reacting loudly in Tagalog and craving Kare Kare and white rice.”

Over the course of her career, Angel tried a number of different jobs before finding her niche in food. In college, she had set her sights on a career in education, although she was not against trying out different opportunities. In graduating, she began working as a Development Associate at a charter public high school. At the same time, she dabbled in other possible career paths. She became a flight director, tried her hand at acting, and began dance and painting. She eventually moved on to work with Breakthrough New York (BTNY), a non-profit that supports low-income students to and through college. But none of these roles satiated her career aspirations, and it was not until she began working in hospitality did she find something that really sparked her passion.

“How did you originally get into cooking?” I asked as Angel scraped her finely-chopped garlic into a pan. The garlic began to sizzle and a rich aroma filled the kitchen. “Honestly, it was a gut feeling,” Angel replied, stirring the garlic with a spatula. “My time with BTNY…was an intense and rewarding experience, and it gave me the opportunity to reflect. I began to question whether or not I was empowering students and if education was what I wanted in the long run. While I was trying to figure it all out, my mind just kept wandering back to this idea of going to culinary school, so I went!” Angel readily admits that she had no idea how to cook when she went to culinary school – a concept that surprised me. “I cut myself during my very first class!” she said with a sheepish laugh. “I didn’t know where culinary school would lead me, but I felt it was the right move.”

When I asked when she got into Zero Food Waste, Angel said it was during culinary school, when she worked as a line cook at a high-volume restaurant. “I was astonished at how much food this restaurant threw out,” she said. “They didn’t even compost it! It drove me crazy; I had just been working with low-income populations that don’t have access to fresh vegetables and fruit, yet here I was throwing out perfectly good, delicious food straight into the trash instead of getting it to those in need.” This experience inspired Angel to dedicate her career to preventing food waste. She was reading as much as she could on the topic and interviewing experts in the space, and eventually she took the leap to focus on it full-time.

At this point, Angel had added the squash ribbons to her sautéed garlic. She cooked them just long enough so that they were tender, but kept their color and taste. Angel then removed them from heat and turned her attention to a second squash, which she sliced lengthwise in half. She brushed each half with olive oil, and placed it directly on her stovetop grill, face-down. “I need to try to get the crosses just right,” she said jokingly, referring to the char marks that the grill made on the squash halves. “My old chef always made a point to the crosses just right.” Angel lifted the squash with satisfaction, revealing a perfect cross-cross pattern.

 

She carefully carried the squash over to the serving plate and meticulously began plating her creation. She placed the grilled squash halves in the center of the dish, and folded the sautéed ribbons around the edges. Angel then picked up a Tupperware bowl with marjoram leaves that she had recently harvested from her windowsill garden. Using tweezers, she picked up each leaf individually and delicately placed them around the dish.

“I love thinking about plating!” Angel explained to me with enthusiasm. “I think plating is crucial because the visual aspect of a dish is the first interaction a guest has with their food.” She explained that her plating method was a hybrid of ‘tweezified and harmonious, the latter being something she had adopted from one of her former Chefs. This Chef had advised her to make it look like all the ingredients are meant to be there; “Garnish the dish so that it looks like it fell on the plate naturally,” he would say. I found this advice amusing given how precise Angel was with her plating technique.

At last, with a sprinkle of salt, the dish was complete. I was astounded at how complex and alluring the dish looked, while at the same time so simple. It consisted only of two squash, some oil, some garlic, some salt – and, of course, strategically-placed garnish – and yet it looked like a masterpiece you could find in any five-star kitchen. Watching Angel in the kitchen, and knowing that only a few years ago she had no idea how to cook, it made me realize that anyone can cook, and can cook well. I asked Angel what advice she had for people who were new to cooking. “Try new foods,” she said, “read a lot of recipes or watch cooking videos. It’s a great way to expand your palette and knowledge.” She also emphasized how important it is to taste everything and trust your taste buds: “If you’re not saying, ‘Mmm,’ if you’re not smiling, if you’re not craving more of your food after you taste it, your dish is not finished”

The last – and best – step in this process was the taste test. Angel nervously handed me a fork and knife, apologizing in advance in case the dish was not well-seasoned enough. I looked at her and laughed, knowing that this food was going to be perfect. And it was. When I tasted the grilled squash, it was perfectly cooked and subtly seasoned. But for me, it was the squash ribbons that stole the show. They had a buttery smoothness, and the aromatic garlic was a sheer delight. I could not have imagined this simple dish tasting any better.

I left Angel’s house that day inspired; this woman had taken the simplest ingredients and turned them into a gourmet dish in under half an hour. She had used the ingredients in their entirety – cooking the skins as ribbons rather than peeling and composting them, and keeping the stems of the grilled squash in tact. Her use of the the full ingredients not only helped to reduce food waste, but also paid homage to the produce that was grown with such care and integrity by Local Roots farmers. Moreover, it showed that when your food is fresh and high quality, all of it can add a delicious component to your meal.

In the end, Angel’s food was vibrant and warm, much like Angel, herself. But more importantly, Angel had embodied the lesson that there’s always more to explore, more to improve on, and that anyone can be a part of the cooking world, particularly if you have “a genuine love of learning and a boundless resilience.”

Angel’s Sustainable Cooking Tip: “You can always add value to excess food, food trim, or food nearing the end of its shelf life. Coffee grounds? Biscotti! Carrot tops? Carrot top pesto! Extra bread? Bread pudding! Remember, it’s not waste if it’s still edible and delicious.”

Keep an eye out for some of Angel’s Local Roots Zero Food Waste recipes on our blog, and as always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments! [email protected]

Yellow Zucchini 2 Ways
Yield: 2-3 portions
Ingredients
– 2 Yellow zucchinis, washed
Slice one zucchini in half, lengthwise
Slice one zuchhini in half, crosswise on a bias, and slice each half thinly lengthwise
– 1Tbsp. Avocado oil
– 1 Tbsp. Olive oil
– 3 large garlic cloves, minced
– Kosher salt
– ½ lemon, juiced
– 1 tsp. marjoram

Procedure
1. Heat grill to ~475°-500° F. Take the two zucchini halves and brush avocado oil on the flesh. Then place the zucchini on the grill, flesh side down. Press down evenly for about 2-3 minutes. Do not move the zucchini slices.
2. Then turn the slices 45° and repeat. (Turning it 45° will achieve the traditional criss-cross marks.)
3. Remove the zucchini halves from the grill. Slice each grilled piece in half again on a bias. Season with salt and about half of the lemon juice. Set aside.
4. In a sauté pan, lightly brown the minced garlic in olive oil over medium high heat. Once the garlic starts to get color, add the thin, zucchini slices and sauté until the zucchini slices are coated in oil and garlic and translucent.
5. Remove the slices from the heat. Season them with salt and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
6. Assemble the sautéed zucchini slices with the grilled zucchini. Sprinkle marjoram, and serve.

– Article contributed by Kirsten Midura