FEMtrepreneur: Amerae Vercueil – Food Stylist, Private Chef and Recipe Developer

When 23-year-old Amerae Vercueil left her political studies in university to attend the prestigious 1000 Hills Chef School in KwaZulu Natal, she knew she had made the right decision by following her passion. She advanced with a diploma in Culinary Arts and another in Business Administration (via IMM), and instead of finding herself behind the kitchen doors of a restaurant, Amerae harnessed all her creativity, talent and skills to become an epicurious FEMtrepreneur, and established herself as a valuable asset to Highbury Media in 2016. This trailblazing culinary artist currently spreads her gastronomic expertise across food editing, styling and photography, recipe development, restaurant consulting and being a private vegan chef. Oh, and we forgot to mention… she’s also opening up her own plant-powered café.

What inspired your career path?

People tend to think my life-long dream was to be a professional foodie, but the journey actually started differently. My family has always been very academic; my father is a chartered accountant and both my mother and brother are in the medical industry. Initially, I decided not to pursue my baking and culinary talents, but study political sciences instead. For me, an independent woman had to have a degree – or two – and that meant not going through life with merely just a culinary diploma. I went to the UK a few months into my degree – while I was still modelling part-time – and met people from different paths of life who were successful in their passions. When I came back home, I left university, got over my social pride, and went to culinary school.

Where does your love of food and cooking come from?

My mother has always been a very career-driven woman, and although she loves cooking, she was never able to. That meant I had to step in and cook for the family, and bake my birthday cakes too. When I was 9 years old, I baked 50 large chocolate chip cookies and took them to school. They sold out within ten minutes. The next day, someone asked me for the recipe and I sold it to them. The excitement of using my talent as a way to transact was exhilarating to me. The next week, I sent a box full of muffins to my father to sell on my behalf at his office canteen.

How did you get your lucky break in the industry?

It was divine intervention indeed! I had to make a very difficult choice: to continue my studies in advanced culinary arts or follow my heart and start a food blog, which meant moving back home to Pretoria. I decided on the latter, and 8 months in, I had this great itch to go to SA’s foodie capital, Cape Town. I was 20 years old, with a home-made styling portfolio and decided to apply for a senior food editor position. I was determined that this would be my break. They asked for a telephonic interview, however, I decided to spend the money and rock up in Cape Town the following day. That was the game changer; I got the job to start up a food department, as the food editor within the media company.

What challenges have you faced as a FEMtrepreneur and how did you overcome them?

  1. Being honest with myself and speaking up about it. Getting started in such a fast-paced industry, I always thought that the best way to get by was to keep your head down, not step on anyone’s toes and get your work done.

  2. Two years later, I realised that making peace with your adversity towards others and saying “NO” was the best thing I could do for myself, and in return, it gets me closer towards my goals.

  3. The future you is thanking the present you for sowing seeds and being diligent”.

Being a 20-year-old and suddenly growing up comes with its angst. It got to me very quickly. I swiftly learnt that managing the stress would require me to become very particular about managing my energy and nullifying negative energy. If what I give and sow today is not something that the future me would thank me for, I would simply refuse to engage.

How long, on average, does it take you to develop a recipe?

In my department, we create, shoot, style and write at least 70 recipes a month. Two years ago it would take me 2-3 hours. Today, 30 minutes is the average time.

What inspires you to create new recipe ideas?

People often ask me with a confusing look on their face: “How can you be vegan when you have this job?” This is how: the idea of blocking myself in on a culinary perspective means I am forced to be creative about the way I think of food, methods and ingredients. One of the best ways to get inspired is by asking my friends to create mystery baskets for me. A single ingredient, and a combination of items open up a whole world of new dishes.

What has been the most effective way of marketing your business?

I’m lucky to be in an industry that everyone loves (food) and everyone needs (food). One huge lesson I learnt was that doing some things for free in the beginning would go a long way. By cooking elaborate dinners and inviting people over or catering for company lunches for nearly no money meant that I could start up some conversation regarding my vegan passions. Sometimes you have to just spend the money and time, and trust that it will come to fruition later on – that’s opened many doors for me.

What is the most courageous thing you’ve done as a FEMtrepreneur?

Other than flying over to Cape Town for what was supposed to be a telephonic interview, it would be opening my café. Courage is so spot-on when I think about the fear of failure of the café (the survival rate is 2/10 for restaurants). By opening a café of this scale, what we’re going for is something I’m not entirely mentally prepared for, and leaving my position as a food editor is a huge risk financially and socially, not to mention I’m handling investors’ money. I’m determined to follow my heart despite the pressure and fears.

Describe yourself in three words:

Enhancer. Creator. Feeder 😛

What do you love most about your job?

Seeing that ‘cooked and styled’ shot is such a beautiful moment. Recently, I’ve had to train my team to learn the styling process. Working with individuals who are keen to enhance their skills and lives has been so enjoyable for me.

Is there anything you dislike about your job?

Like any human on earth; budgets and admin.

What are your three top tips for food styling/photography:

  1. Channel your ‘free’ side – styling is the opposite of regulatory, methodical or formulation. It’s about setting up a frame of what feels like it would in a natural setting. When you’re setting up for a breakfast table, you place certain things naturally how you feel at home – we want to create an inviting setting in styling with an edge of aspiration.

  2. Style the food while you write the recipe. Think of how you’re going to cut something, think of the colour of the sauce and the grill marks on the toast. All the colours textures and details of the dish can make or break the image.

  3. Olive oil and water are your two besties. Always have oil with a pastry brush to shine the meat or veg. Always use water to spritz fresh fruit and place your herbs in icy water before styling dishes. These make huge differences in how the light highlights your food.

Are there any chefs or food editors/stylists/photographers who you look up to and admire?

On a global scale, I would say Bon Appetite and Donna Hay magazines. In South Africa, I often go to local farmers markets and look for things I haven’t cooked with. I only recently discovered the wonders of sorghum and millet as a base for salads. These are ingredients our African ancestors have been using for many years.

What has been your greatest career achievement thus far?

Resigning from my job to open a café with two amazing business partners.

Opening a cafe was always in my 10-year plan, and to see that this might be a possibility at the age of 23 is a dream come true. The biggest issue I had at my current job was that I was creating these wonderful meals but I could never personally witness the reader’s reaction when they saw my dishes in the pages of magazines or tried making them. The fact that I can now make food and have the satisfaction of seeing people’s reactions first-hand is such an exciting prospect for me.

Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you would love to achieve?

Yes! I’d love to launch a vegan product range and have a cooking show! My friends always tease that I could be the vegan Nigella Lawson. Maybe, right?

What advice would you give to young chefs and FEMtrepreneurs?

Being a female entrepreneur has been a wild ride in my personal life. I’ve often been told that I can be cold, emotionless and too candid. These are skills I’ve had to equip myself with within my career and I see them as assets to succeed. My second piece of advice is to alter your meaning of success into having the ability to follow your passion. If you follow your passion, money will follow.

When I decided to leave my job to open a café, I didn’t have the means. However, by following what I love doing, I managed to get two investors who were happy to give me the start-up capital.

 

Fun facts about Amerae

Favourite business tool:

Respect

My personal style is…

Elegant nerd

Heels or flats?

Heels

I unwind and relax by:

Baking

Favourite shade of lipstick:

Red!

Book recommendation:

The power of now & the subtle art of not giving a f*&k

A cuisine/s I love:

Indonesian

My favourite recipe I’ve developed is…

Vegan croissants (that actually taste like butter croissants)

Three food items I always have in my pantry:

Sprouts, tahini and sriracha.

An ingredient I love working with:

Chickpeas

Best thing I’ve ever eaten:

Falafel (all day, everyday)

Favourite coffee haunt or restaurant:

Vida e caffé (for the best almond lattes)

If I had an unlimited budget, I would buy…

A pastry sheeter (to make endless batches of vegan croissants) and a round ticket to Asia (for foodie inspo).

Dream destination:

Japan

The one thing required for success is…

Intuition

If you’ve also been fangirling (we mean following Amerae’s amazing food journey through magazines such as My Kitchen SA, Living Space, Foshini Club and Equinox), you will be thrilled to find out that her vegan eatery, Amé’s Café will be opening soon in Cape Town. Salivating over the mouth-watering dishes she develops and styles for these publications is just a small indicator of the sublime fare she will be offering there.

While we eagerly await the grand opening, find inspiration for your next dish on Amerae’s website or follow her ravishing foodtography on Instagram.

To collaborate with her on your next foodie project, email ameraevv@gmail.com

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