Chef An Vo is on a mission to transform kitchens and tastebuds, creating healthy, gluten-free and vegan food for clients. Inspired by the Vietnamese home cooking she grew up on, Vo believes that each and every dish she prepares should delight, not deprive – and from presentation to taste, her food is to-die-for! Working with clients both to provide a delicious, well-rounded diet as well as tailoring meals specifically to fitness goals, Vo is truly a standout, marrying healthy principles with mouth-watering flavors. In addition to her private chef and catering services in NYC, Vo also offers cooking and baking classes.
How did you get started in the culinary world?
I grew up in the food industry. My parents owned an Asian grocery store while I was growing up, and my mom ran the little banh-mi shop inside of it. My mother is also an amazing home cook – she cooked every meal for us growing up. Mostly Vietnamese food, but with some American influence. When I was growing up I’d work in the shop with them, helping my mom make banh-mi and stuff like that. My parents taught me everything I know. I love banh mi, and my mom makes the best kind!
What made you want to become a chef full-time, for a living?
Well, I’m an emotional eater – I eat when I’m sad, I eat when I’m happy. Cooking was just something that I always loved to do, too. I’ve always enjoyed baking and cooking at home with my mom, and I thought to myself: if I enjoy it so much, maybe it’s something I could do every day, for work, for the rest of my life.
What’s your style/specialty in cooking?
I specialize in healthful Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnamese food is traditionally gluten-free and dairy-free, so I specialize in vegan and gluten-free, as well as fitness meal prep, which puts an emphasis on dishes incorporating lean meat and fish, or other protein. I focus on healthy foods, fresh foods – nothing made from a can or anything like that. I make everything from scratch – all my sauces, condiments and pickles.
Can you tell us about the companies you’ve started?
I started my own catering company back in 2010. It was mainly just desserts, because I have a major sweet tooth, and it was called Organic Designer Desserts. It offered vegan and gluten-free dessert alternatives. I realized that there are a lot of people in the fitness world or in the entertainment industry that refrain from eating dessert altogether, since it can be so rich and fatty and full of preservatives, so I wanted to provide something sweet that they could eat but still feel fresh and healthy afterwards.
When I was growing up, I loved American food, because all I basically ate was Vietnamese food prepared by my mom! So when I’d go over to my American friends’ houses, we’d bake stuff together, but from the Betty Crocker box. I would read the ingredients on the box to see what’s in it, and that’s how I got my start learning about substitutions – where the recipe would call for a cup of milk, I’d add a cup of soy milk, and slowly from there I started baking from scratch, and swapping out the refined sugar for coconut sugar, which is low-glycemic, and swapping out the flour with rice flour, things like that. A couple of years later, clients started asking if I could also add some hors d’oeuvres when I do dessert catering, and things just moved from there. I started my next company, The Healthy Happy Chef, in 2014.
What inspires you as a chef?
New York City is so inspiring! There is so much art around me – beauty, nature, culture. I’m inspired by everyday things – by the colors that I see in nature, by the different people I meet in the city and where they’re from, what flavors make up their cuisines. I just live in such a rich city, where I can go to a corner bodega and have spices from all over the world. I’m very much inspired by people and art.
What’s been the toughest part of being a private chef?
I think the toughest part is not becoming too involved in my clients’ lives, just because I’m in their homes cooking for them. It’s a fine line between being friends with them and being their chef. You know, you spend a lot of time with them, but you want to respect their privacy while being a part of their lives.
What’s one of the proudest moments you’ve had in your career so far?
I would say I’m very proud when my clients reach their fitness goals. So whenever I see them and they do their weigh-ins and tell me how much they’ve lost, I feel very proud that I’ve helped them achieve something that they’ve wanted, that they’re eating better and feeling better health-wise. The moments that make me proudest are when they reach the goals they’ve been trying to conquer.
If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
I would either be the most perfect housewife, or a yoga instructor.
What’s one tip you’d give someone who’s just starting their career as a private chef?
The best advice I could give someone who wants to be a private chef would be to confidently leave the restaurant world, and boldly go into the private chef world, because all you really need to do is to start with one client. I know it may not sound like a lot, but that one client – if they love you, and they love your food, they will tell everyone they know. And those people, in turn, will tell everyone that they know. I started off with just one family, and now I cook for five. I’m represented by four different culinary agencies, and it just grew from there, but when I first started I was also afraid to leave the restaurant world, and that kept me trapped in that kitchen for longer than I should have been. I wasn’t happy with the things that I was making there – it was very repetitive, it was long hours, and I wanted to design my own menus and cook something different every day.
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