I do what I love, and I love what I do. This isn’t my career, this is my lifestyle.
The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into the Founders Campus kitchen is the music. The beats and rhythm echo off the tile floors and aluminum prep tables. The sounds are accompanied by the smells of the day’s cooking and the chatter of the staff as tables are rearranged and cleaned from a day of preparing and serving. If you follow the music past the appliances and refrigerators you’ll find Benny Vega, Mount Vernon’s Executive Chef, tucked into a small alcove office doing inventory.
Music is only half of what makes Benny, Benny – it’s the part of him he received from his mother: a Latin Jazz singer who sang in the clubs back home in Brooklyn, sang in the Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and traveled the world. But his love of cooking and being in the kitchen is something he acquired from his father – a restaurateur and chef in Puerto Rico whom he would visit during the summers.
“My father wanted so bad for me to not go down the same road. I was taken to slaughterhouses, worked as the pot washer, given the hard jobs to try and push me away from the restaurant business.” It didn’t work; in fact, it had the opposite effect. As Benny gained more experience and knowledge of the business, he fell in love with the trade. The kid who was once sneaking away into the kitchens when the family would go out, would one day be running his own.
“It’s a cultural thing, cooking – being in the kitchen.” Benny explains about his Puerto Rican background, “it was the highlight of my family. We didn’t have money; we were poor, but when we got together we didn’t feel poor. Because we would have a good meal, we would have great fellowship. So when I cook, I cook to bring people together.”
Cooking to bring people together is a lesson Benny has carried with him throughout his life – it started in grandma’s kitchen, it continued when his father (in Puerto Rico) would ask him to bring plates of food to their neighbors, to barter for other goods and services – and now – it has led Benny to be a part of the organization Ser Familia, and cook for over 1400.
Ser Familia works with immigrants to help acclimate them to culture in the United States and they put on two events a year: Saborea, and Puerto Rican Heritage. Saborea started in a hotel parking lot off of Interstate 285. As Benny puts it, “It was a bad chicken dinner. It wasn’t fun. I walked up to the lady in charge and said, ‘I have friends, I know people and we can make this better.” Within five years, Ser Familia went from meeting in a small group of 70 people to 400; went from 3 chefs to 12; and went from the parking lot of a hotel to two separate events, one in Spring Hall in Buford, and another, recently, at Suntrust Park cooking for 4000.
“I do what I love, and I love what I do. This isn’t my career, this is my lifestyle.” Benny lives out his passion for cooking every hour and every day of the week. He fills his free-time with community service; homeless ministry being one of his passions as he works with Safe House Outreach and provides Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve meals. In his own words, “this is how I tithe. If I can affect one person in one meal that I’ve made, then I’ve done my job.”