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Meet Your Food Blogger: Billy Vasquez of The 99 Cent Chef

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Fri, Dec 30, 2011 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge the 99 Cent Chef - BILLY VASQUEZ
  • Billy Vasquez
  • the 99 Cent Chef
Where does Billy Vasquez, the 99 Cent Chef, find inspiration for his blog? At L.A.'s ubiquitous 99 Cents Only Stores, of course. His blog reports on the current food items (some vary from day to day) as well as other under-a-dollar bargains at local markets. Using these cheap ingredients, "The Chef," as he refers to himself, creates clever, tasty and often health-conscious recipes that he demonstrates with photographs, video and stop motion animation.

By day, Vasquez is a digital artist, skilled in techniques of visual and audio presentation. His background as an editor, camera operator and director of photography enliven his sometimes prosaic instructions -- cutting an onion, squeezing a lime. The stop motion animation videos are especially unique -- the kind of thing that might show in a theater alongside a feature film. (Check out this video-recipe for chicken stroganoff or scenes of restaurants at night to see the blog in action.) Many of Vasquez's posts are humorous and sometimes feature relatives, friends and neighborhood scenes. Others explore L.A. culture -- perhaps a trip east on the Metro Gold Line, a gay marriage celebration or a night at the Hollywood Park Racetrack. We talked with Vasquez about the blog's origins, his inspiration, and of course, 99 Cents Only Stores.

click to enlarge ingredients for "Salmon Olympia" - BILLY VASQUEZ
  • Billy Vasquez
  • ingredients for "Salmon Olympia"
Squid Ink: Just who is the 99 Cent Chef -- where are you from?

Billy Vasquez: I'm from Port Lavaca Texas, on the Texas gulf coast and moved to Louisiana in grade school. I've been in L.A. for 36 years, and live in Culver City.

SI: I'm sure the 99 Cent Chef keeps pretty busy. How about a day job?

BV:I'm a freelance digital artist and do postproduction effects for commercials, TV, and film -- everything from "Return of the Jedi" to "Vampire Diaries." I've worked as an editor, cameraman and director of photography.

SI: How does that fit with your blogger life?

BV:I've always been interested in literature and writing. Blogging is a perfect way to combine all the media disciplines.

SI: What are your other interests?

BV:I'm interested in L.A. I like to walk through neighborhoods, take the subway, check out art, scope out things and see classic films. That feeds the creativity. The food blog is a perfect filter. Blogging and interaction with the city feed one another.

SI: Where did the 99 Cent Chef idea come from?

BV:I'm cheap by nature! The 99 Cents Only Store always had a decent canned food selection -- olives, clams, tomatoes, but not fresh items. Then they started stocking produce and dairy and more frozen foods. I could make Italian pasta dishes with everything from the 99 Cent Store. I would make them for dates. They would dig in, and later I'd say, "By the way, this is all from the 99 Cent Store." Their faces would drop, but then they'd start laughing.

I began calling myself the "99 Cent Chef" on a lark. It was a silly thing to talk about at work. Then I made a video of "the 99 Cent Chef Goes Shopping" for an art show. Everything clicked - the concept and the tongue and cheek approach. I was break dancing in the aisles. Showing five different kinds of Vienna sausages. People saw the video and were fascinated! I decided to start a blog using videos and the recipes I had been writing down. The first post was a video of me feeding people at the writer's strike.

click to enlarge squash blossom quesadilla - BILLY VASQUEZ
SI: You've been writing the blog since 2007. What keeps it fresh and interesting for you?

BV:I'm inspired by L.A. I'm an enthusiast. I'm always amazed at the stuff that's out there. I can go to a Latin market and decide to cook with cactus or poblano chiles. By being open and enthusiastic about my surroundings, ideas pop up everywhere. You don't have to try too hard.

SI: How did you learn to cook?

BV:I grew up on the gulf coast in a family of shrimpers, so I was exposed to great seafood. We couldn't afford hamburger or steaks, but we got all the seafood we could eat -- blue crab, oysters, jumbo shrimp. In grade school we moved to Louisiana where there's a wild, imaginative, crazy food culture - crawfish, alligator. Here in L.A., every neighborhood is a different food culture. I have no culinary schooling. But I don't need it. The kind of stuff I do isn't haute. Like on my blog I say, "I take the haute out of cuisine, I cook for the people."

SI: You make a lot of recipe videos to go along with your blogs. What is their appeal?

BV:It goes back to Julia Child; videos show much more than just words. People can see the techniques and your flubs or how bad you cut an onion. People realize, "I don't need to be an expert to do this." Also, they can see how it comes together in real time.

SI: Could you recommend other food blogs with videos?

BV:Hilah Cooking. She's from Austin, an ex-punkette chick with a thick Texas accent who does humorous takes on recipes. She'll do trashy kinds of stuff. Also, The Perennial Plate. He does travel logs. His videos are very stripped down, documentary-style. He'll go to Texas and Louisiana, where they had the oil spill, and talk to people. But because he's also a chef, he'll find ingredients and come up with something.

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