Chef John Verlinden or, as he’s known in the culinary industry, “Johnny V.”, will be cooking up some delicious Cuban brunch for us at our Career Brunch & Workshops event on Saturday, September 13th! Johnny V. started his own restaurant, Mucho Gusto Cafe, which grew into a successful catering and personal chef business. What’s more, he recently wrote an awesome new cookbook based on his recipes, and he’ll be signing copies on Saturday. Don’t miss the chance to chow down with him and pick his brain on how he pursued his dream career!
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef and why? I started cooking the summer I turned twelve years old. My mom was returning to work in town, and was not going to be home to make dinner for my father when he came home from work, so it was my job to make a good meal for him. At first, I just made very simple things, but then as I gained experience I got creative trying my hand at recipes from others and experimenting with my own inspirations. My first job at age 13 was flipping burgers and making milkshakes at a local drive-in restaurant in our community. Since then I’ve worked in and around the food business for much of my life, and in every capacity from busboy and dishwasher to server and bartender to chef and owner. Like with most worthwhile pursuits in life, to be a successful professional chef requires lots of practice, a focus on planning and attention to detail and creativity. But, being a professional chef has only been one of my careers. I also worked as an executive with the U.S government for many years. And today, I also have a business consulting practice assisting other entrepreneurs with their businesses, and I work as a food writer and educator. I enjoy being busy, and seek a lot of variety in the kinds of work I pursue. While others may think we don’t have the knowledge, skill, or ability we need to pursue a particular career, remember we know what we can do and we set our own limitations.
Can you name a mentor or role model in your life who helped you accomplish your goals? I’ve been fortunate to have many wonderful mentors throughout my life — people who took an interest in my life and career and who gave me good direction and support. I still seek out and welcome the advice of others as I consider new endeavors … one never outgrows the need for good mentors. The one person who stands out in my life as a mentor was Lou Ball from Baltimore, Maryland. His interest in helping me succeed and the encouragement and enthusiasm he showed gave me a lot of confidence when I was a very young man. The important thing about mentoring is that it is a two-way street. We get as good as we give. In every successful mentoring relationship, both the mentor and the mentee feel like they have received something valuable from the experience. Both the mentor and mentee need to plan and prepare in advance. And become a mentor to another is our opportunity to pay it forward — if we benefited from having a mentor take an interest in us … we need to make sure that we become a mentor to someone else and help make a difference in his/her life.
You just published a cookbook! What would you like to tell us about it? I am so proud of To Cook Is to Love. It is a beautiful book and I think you will really enjoy it. There is something for everyone in this book. It has been a 10+ year project, and it’s not your traditional cookbook. Equal parts conversation, cookbook and memoir — it’s my mother-in-law’s life story and the recipes fall from the story. To Cook Is to Love started as a very small, very simple idea, but then grew into this complete basic Latin cookbook and entertainment guide.
When I met Mami Aida 29 years ago and tasted her delicious comida, I was hooked. I wanted to learn everything I could about the foods that thrilled and delighted my taste buds and just had to make Cuban cuisine my own. That journey began with our restaurant, Mucho Gusto Cafe, continued with our catering and personal chef businesses, and now culminates in this work. To Cook Is to Love is a multi-generational cultural tapestry of Cuban history, life, food, wine, and music. And, all are interwoven with images of pre-revolutionary Cuban memorabilia – travel brochures, advertisements, menus and more, vintage family photographs and original illustrations, giving the book a delightfully warm and nostalgic look and feel.
If you could give our mentees just one piece of advice about pursuing their dream career, what would it be? Pursuing your dream is important, but when it comes to selecting a career, my advice is to do something that you enjoy doing (as you are going to be spending many hours in the field you choose), and to pursue something that you are really good at it (when you are one of the best in your field and have a good reputation for excellence, people will find you). So, as you think about the future, do a self-assessment — what motivates you? What brings you joy and satisfaction? What are your greatest strengths/abilities/traits? What things do you do best?
And last but not least, what’s your favorite food of all time? I couldn’t possibly choose just one favorite food, I love just about everything … that’s one reason my cookbook is so big (200 recipes). I didn’t want to leave anything or anybody out. Ask me again next year, as I’m always trying new things, and who knows, one of them might just become my favorite food of all time. For more advice from Johnny V., come and meet him in person at our Career Brunch & Workshops event tomorrow! And be sure to check out his website at http://www.muchogusto.com/.