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.
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.
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.
SI: How has the blog developed over the years?
BV:The videos look better. But the concept has been consistent. Cheap ingredients, creative recipes, sense of humor and variety.
SI: Can you tell us about the “Restaurant Nocturnes” videos?
BV:For 10 years I did a lot of street art-photography all over town, totally random stuff. Now I'm doing the exteriors of restaurants at night. I take 200 stills and turn it into a film. I show people coming and going. And then I talk to people at the restaurant about the food, and play that audio recording over the photos. It's a video-audio-collage. I've done seven so far; they show nighttime L.A. like no one's ever shown it before.
SI: Which are the best 99 Cents Only Store locations?
BV:The La Tijera location is great for booze and veggies, and has a great deli case. The Hollywood store has lots of produce and deli items. Wilshire and Fairfax is one of the largest. I've seen Rolls Royces in the parking lot. There's a smaller one around the corner at Fairfax and 6th. Those are the ones I frequent the most.
SI: What can you tell us about 99 Cents Only Store shoppers?
BV:On Sundays, at the La Tijera store, African Americans dressed in their finest stroll the aisles, possibly just out of church. At the Wilshire/Fairfax store, I saw an older, well tended, lady loading her 99 Cents Only Store filled bags into a Rolls Royce. (Did she get her Rolls because of her thrift?) Three stylishly hip Japanese girls were on their phones and going through a cardboard bin of cantaloupes. (Were they tourists?) A young couple with Scandinavian accents pored over their shopping basket. (Were they staying at a nearby hostel?) An old man leaning heavily on his grocery cart slowly scanned rows of canned goods. (Retired and on a budget?) A 30-something well-groomed lady in a tailored suit waited in the checkout line. (Just off work from a Wilshire office tower?)
The most eclectic mix of bargain hunters is found at the Hollywood 99 Cents Only Store on La Brea and Willoughby. Rocker-tattooed types in impossibly tight black jeans. (Starving musicians?) A man wearing a yarmulke with a modestly dressed pregnant woman in a wig keeping a close eye on their two kids in the toy section. (Married a few years and now must budget for more on the way?) Young porcelain-faced actress types in loose sweats. (Broke, new to town, and between auditions?) Women with too broad shoulders and too thin hips and muscle men in tight tee shirts going through the fresh produce. (Fitness freaks?) Homeless types just wandering the aisles. An international assortment of Guatemalans, Mexicans, Armenians, Thais and more – everyone looking for a deal and trying to stretch their meager earnings.
Of course, there are some who know what kind of deals they can get, and go to supplement their regular chain grocery (Ralphs, Whole Foods, etc.) shopping. And some are just cheap, like me.
SI: What about people who don't shop at 99 Cent Only Stores?
BV:I think people who have been to other discount stores — the 98 Cent Store or The Dollar Store — have been turned off by the battered and dented canned goods, lack of selection, and unappetizing appearance. So they think all 99 Cents Only stores are the same – only soap, paper towels and cans of beans. I've talked to 99 Cents Only Store converts who are surprised by the selection of fresh produce. Others wouldn't be caught dead in a 99 Cents Only Store and look down their noses at me when I mention I shop there.
SI: Who is your blog intended for?
BV:I've been a struggling artist all my life. That colors everything I do, even food blogging. My frame of reference is this: Who are the students who don't have any money? Who are the struggling filmmakers? People on minimum wage? What would they eat, and how can I give them ideas? I came from a single parent-family and I know the struggling class out there. I'm never going to be too far from that. I want to show how anyone can make decent food. And most things are pretty healthy. I use a lot of fresh produce. Mostly, you work with what's in the neighborhood.
SI: What's the blog post you're most proud of?
BV:When gay marriage was legalized in 2008, there was a mass wedding in West Hollywood Park. My wife thought we should go and check it out. As a blogger, I thought, “how can I incorporate this into my blog?” I decided to make cupcakes and hand them out to people. The video starts with people in line waiting to get married. There was another cupcake purveyor there, so we did a throw-down for the comedic element. I got food, comedy, social issues, progressive politics, civil rights and real people into the video. It's pretty powerful.
SI: Can you point out some of your favorite recipes?
BV:I've done some film-themed recipes. Russ Meyer Lemon Chicken, Film Noir Ribeye steak, John Cassavetes red pepper, olive oil, garlic and pasta, and Ingmar Bergman Swedish meatballs.
Past “Meet Your Food Blogger” interviews:
Javier Cabral of Teenage Glutster (Feb. 1, 2010)
Pat Saperstein of EatingLA (Dec.10, 2009)
Matt Amendariz of Matt Bites (Nov. 16, 2009)
Tony Chen of Sinosoul (Oct. 29, 2009)
Chris Bostick of The Varnish (Oct. 16, 2009)
Rickmond Wong of Rameniac (Oct. 8, 2009)
Jeni Ofuso of Oishii Eats (Sep. 29, 2009)
Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA (Sep. 16, 2009)
Amanda Simpson of FoodPornDaily (Sep. 10, 2009)
Cathy Dahn of Gastronomy (Sep. 2, 2009)
Eddie Lin of Deep End Dining (Aug. 18, 2009)