Culinary Head of the Class

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Let’s face it – gay guys who think they can whip up a killer meal in a stunning setting are a dime a dozen. If stereotypes are to be believed, most gays have at least five signature dishes that will knock your socks off.

Why are you looking at me like that? What? No, I said, “knock your socks off.” Anyway, stereotypes. The media would have us believe that most gay guys can whip up a souffle with one hand while uncorking a perfect wine choice with the other and putting together a dramatic but tasteful tablescape à la Sandra Lee while dispensing the witty banter. In Central Market Chef Vance Ely’s case, the media are right.

A California military brat, Ely attended three high schools, ultimately landing at Tokay High in Lodi High, CA., where the high school colors were the appropriately regal purple and gold. A community surrounded by wineries, Ely recalls high school homecomings during the wine stomp season. “We were purple to our knees,” says Ely.

Ely found his passion for cooking early on. But beyond that passion, and the opportunity to express himself creatively, he found that cooking also served a more basic, grounding purpose. “It put a controller on my dyslexia,” says Ely. “I could keep track of all kinds of recipes in my head – ingredients, necessary quantities, get that all collected in a game plan by order ticket and take care of that kind of thing – but I couldn’t do my math home- work without my parents checking it.”

In fact, Ely’s road to becoming a chef, much like the rest of his creative career, combined a strong work ethic, lots of creativity, and the luck of being in the right place at the right time. “I had my first culinary job at the Sugar Loaf, a restaurant in Penn Valley, Cali.,” says Ely. “I applied for a bussing position. I said I would do whatever I was told with no questions and was hired instantly. The first day they had me wash dishes, the second day I was so caught up that they asked me to help make some salad dressings. My misinterpretation of the notes ended up making dressings that were better than before, so that became part of my job. One day I started plating for breakfasts to help out during a rush, a few months later I was running the line alone – frying eggs, cooking hashbrowns, rapid-fire order filling. One day I started working about 7 in the morning. The owner came in about 4p.m. and she asked where the line cook was. I thought it had only been a short time since the lunch rush, but it had been hours and hours. The girl who I thought had just stopped out for a smoke had been picked up by the cops behind the restaurant for smoking (something other than cigarettes).”

“It was an affirmation that I could do something,” Ely continues. “I’d had a mixed bag of teachers – some who believed in me and some who said I didn’t know how to glue sticks together to make coasters. It was a turning point in my life because I went from the kid who was picked on to being a confident kid who could do something that no one else could do. In the line of fire we the kept food coming out.”

Ely’s descriptions of the genesis of his culinary passion are already striking enough. Then he mentions the Stockton Asparagus Festival, a culinary celebration in the San Francisco Bay area. “I got to work with three of America’s great chefs,” says Ely who found himself apprenticing as a volunteer with the legendary Julia Child, assisting her during culinary demos during the festival. A bit oblivious to his surroundings, Ely set to work under Child’s direction whipping cream. “If I have to wait to for you to whip cream, I’m going to die before this class ever starts,” Child says. “Having no idea that I was standing on a stage, the next I know, curtains open and there’s 3,000 people staring at us. I kept calling her ‘sir.’”

Impressed with his talent, Child introduced Ely to superstar Chefs Martin Yan of the wildly popular Chinese cooking show “Yan Can Cook” and Alice Waters, the groundbreaking Chef behind the old-school Berkeley restaurant phenomenon, Chez Panisse.

“I got to work with three of America’s greats,” Ely shares, matter-of-factly, “and to have two of them come to Central Market, and to be recognized by name by both of them in front of colleagues, was pretty cool, too.”

But Ely, whose lunchtime learning classes at Central Market have grown to become a staple for the hobby gourmet, didn’t start in the Central Market Cooking School. In fact, Ely took a job as a floral designer at the North Lamar culinary mecca soon after it opened ten years ago. Austin was just on the verge of developing a culinary identity beyond tacos and barbecue, and Ely felt Central Market was an obvious place for a foodie to hang their hat, even if it meant working in the floral department and waiting patiently for a position to open up in the cooking school. While he spent his days in the floral department, Ely volunteered his time to the cooking school in the evenings to stay in practice and get the lay of the land.

Ely had volunteered for almost two years when the tragic events of September 11, 2001 found the cooking school’s management and teaching team stranded at a food show in Las Vegas. Back in Austin, Ely was tapped to facilitate the class and he was quickly recognized for his passion and competence. Soon thereafter, he stepped in as the lead instructor for one of the late Chef Roger Mollett’s series of Cooking 101 classes. “He turned green about ten minutes before class,” Ely says. “I sent him home and taught the sauces class – which means I had to make Hollandaise sauce for about 40 people – that was daunting.”

Ely says Mollett, one of Austin’s most celebrated chefs who recently succumbed to a long-term illness, “was probably the most influential person in getting me into the cooking school. He mentored me – really focusing on my teaching style – how to be able to captivate, entertain, captivate, engage an audience, have a lighthearted feel in the class but also have people walk away with tangible knowledge and the feeling of knowing me as a person so they can contact me, “Ely says. “I really feel like I continue to teach each class for weeks and months after, because I often receive phone calls from guests who call back with questions.”

Ely, who lives with his partner in south Austin, regularly contributes his time and expertise to the community, holding cooking demos everywhere from the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum to the Paramount Theatre. He teaches knife skills classes for the Food Science Educators of Texas, works with the Sustainable Food Center, and even judges entries at the Kolache Festival in West, Texas. “I’m going back this year so I can stuff myself silly and swear off kolaches for another year,” Ely laughs It’s a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it.

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