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Passion on a Plate: The Story of TAFB Executive Chef Manuel Vasquez

Some artists create their masterpieces with clay or on canvass, but for Tarrant Area Food Bank’s Executive Chef Manuel Vasquez, art is formed with a sharp knife and a sharper imagination.

Seven years ago, working for a nonprofit organization, much less holding down the title of executive chef at a food bank, wasn’t on his radar. But that’s just where Chef Vasquez, known community-wide as “Chef Manny,” finds himself today.

As the executive chef for Tarrant Area Food Bank’s Community Kitchen, a free culinary training program, Chef Manny does much more than cook. For the 30 or so aspiring chefs that come through the program each year, he serves as a teacher, trainer, mentor and coach.

“At the beginning of each session, I tell the students right up front that the restaurant business isn’t for everyone,” said Chef Manny. “The hours are long, the work is hard and the pay is pretty bad when you’re getting started. If you want to be successful in the culinary world, you’ll have to pay your dues.”

Getting Experience

Chef Manny coaches from experience. After high school, he aspired to play baseball but when that dream didn’t go as planned, he took a different path and for the next 17 years he worked in the printing industry.

“After 10 years, I stopped and asked myself what I was doing,” said Chef Manny. “I was working in a print shop, which was not something I ever had passion for, so I checked around the company to see if there were any sales jobs open.”

Passing all required testing, Chef Manny landed a sales position that took him from the comforts of his Tarrant County home to Tulsa, Oklahoma and then on to Atlanta, Georgia.

“Turns out, I didn’t have any passion for sales either. I knew it when I would have to cold-call on companies and I would just sit in my car, not wanting to get out.”

As fate would have it, the printing company Chef Manny was working for in Atlanta laid him off. After 17 years in the industry, he had to find a new direction.

“I was 35 years old at that time, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” he reflected. “I finally narrowed it down to becoming a firefighter or a chef.”

After researching The Art Institute of Atlanta’s culinary training program, his decision was made and for the past 17 years, he’s never looked back.

Starting the Journey

“I learned to cook from my abuela, my grandmother. She catered around town and made amazing moles. My passion in the kitchen is because of her.”

While attending The Art Institute of Atlanta, Chef Manny was beginning a journey that would come full circle.

“I got started late in my profession,” said Chef Manny. “I had to work hard to get experience quickly.”

He started as a bartender at On the Border where a colleague got him a job at the Horseradish Grill, an independent southern cuisine restaurant. For the next two years, he worked his way up in the fast-paced kitchen from a pantry chef to sous chef. From there, he trained under Marla Adams, a graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Babette’s Café, worked for a catering company and landed his first executive chef position at Black Bear Tavern, a new restaurant and bar. Wanting to learn even more, he moved to the Georgia Grill, a southwestern cuisine restaurant, as their executive chef.

With 10 years under his belt as a chef, it was only fitting that the place he started, the Horseradish Grill, came looking for Chef Manny to fill their vacated executive chef position.

“It’s where I started in Atlanta, and where I ended.”

Connecting to a Mission

While Chef Manny loved his time in Atlanta, family here in Texas called him home so he packed up and returned to his roots.

His first culinary job was at Vidalias at the Worthington Renaissance Hotel in downtown Fort Worth. He liked it, but wanted more. A fellow chef told him to check into a position at Tarrant Area Food Bank.

“I pulled up to the building, a pretty old warehouse, and wondered what I would find inside.” To his surprise, the chef found a state-of-the-art culinary kitchen and for the past seven years, Chef Manny has called that kitchen home.

“The mission called out to me. We get to teach students to become self-sufficient chefs through our program, and we get to feed hungry people who might not have food without us. Working here has been an eye-opener, and a great fit.”

At any given time, areas chefs including Jon Bonnell, Grady Spears, Keith “Buttons” Hicks, Billy Woodrich, Keith Grober, Stefon Rishel and countless others can be found in Chef Manny’s kitchen helping the students perfect their culinary skills.

“I teach the students to never give up on finding their passion. If it’s becoming a chef like any of us that they learn from, that’s great. But if it’s not, that’s great too. Just don’t give up because you’re never too old or too young to follow your dreams.”

Orientation sessions for the next course are being held on July 31 and August 1. Learn more and reserve your spot.