Carroll Gardens, Feature Story, Food

Chef V Preps for a Street Food Revolution, by Sarah Matusek

Chef V (Vander Carter) heads local food startup JestGreen. Photo by PrinceAnthony Hall.

A version of this story first appeared in the Star-Revue’s August 2017 print edition.

A burnt out bulb. A busted car. A broken knee. Future biographers might note a theme laced through Vander Carter’s culinary career: things keep breaking.

But Carter — a Carroll Gardens entrepreneur behind the food startup JestGreen — only sees crisis as a chance for growth. Carter’s relentless optimism and tireless drive have carried him from living on the streets to pioneering a startup that plans to revolutionize the streets, all by making healthy food fun and accessible across class divides.  

It all started with an Easy Bake Oven.

“Once the light bulb broke, I couldn’t use it anymore,” laughs Carter, remembering his beloved kid-sized oven that baked desserts during his childhood in Jersey City. Now in his early 30s, Carter’s winsome grin reveals a youthful spirit.

He still remembers becoming his grandmother’s sous chef, standing on a stool to reach the counter. “The first dish that I ever really mastered was pancakes,” says Carter. “I was like a super perfectionist. They would all have to be the same color and the same size or they would go in the trash.”

His grandmother, Clara Carter, championed his early experiments in the kitchen. Carter recognized his grandmother’s signature style as “cooking with the heart.” “Which I find is that extra seasoning and flavor in food that makes it spectacular,” he adds smiling.  

The two were close. Clara taught her grandson cooking from scratch, Southern-style cuisine, and the art of cake baking; Carter quickly became the head cake decorator, writing the lucky recipients’ names in icing. Clara would buy kitchen appliances from cooking shows on TV to support her eager apprentice, who would often cook breakfast for the whole family.

“I kind of fell in love with the idea of cooking and the way it made the family feel and how I could see them happy and smiling — enjoying good food from someone they knew made it,” says Carter.

After culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Florida, Carter gained experience in different Asian cuisines by cooking for street carts and corporate kitchens. The more he learned fusion food (one job in Miami involved prepping Cuban-Thai meals) the more his culinary horizon broadened. Carter’s knowledge of global flavors would later influence his playful menus for JestGreen.

He eventually burned out in Miami. The daily drudgery for little pay grated on him. “I was ready to be free,” Carter says solemnly. He packed up his car, learned to read a map, and planned a cross-country solo trip.

But the day of his departure, his car broke down. Crushed, Carter burned through his travel budget on towing and fixing the car.

He headed home to New Jersey, but was disappointed by the lack of acceptance and support. Carter’s self-starter spirit chafed against the apathy he observed. “I want to do more,” he realized. And so he moved on.

“I came here to New York really not knowing what to do,” Carter admits. After nearly freezing while living out of his car, he spent six to eight months bouncing around homeless shelters.

“That was a life-altering experience. I learned a lot about myself in that time and I learned a lot about other people through observations.” Carter recognizes that his homelessness was a choice, though a difficult one. Relentlessly optimistic, he considered his living conditions a mere “pit stop in my life.”

When he finally secured a single room occupancy, or SRO, it still wasn’t ideal. It felt “like prison” with lock-ins and curfews. For a foodie like Carter, subsisting on frozen waffles and sausages was especially crushing. Driven to better his circumstance, he says he spent hours at a career services office for days on end. One day his diligence paid off.

“The woman in charge [of career services] noticed and was like, ‘You’re always here. Why don’t we give you a stipend and you work?’ And I was like, Yes! I can get a metrocard and go to interviews now—and I can get some food!”

In 2012 he landed at a tech startup in Manhattan’s Garment District, 140 Ventures. Mike De’Shazer, 140 Ventures’ founder, remembers Carter as a go-getter.

“Vander brought great energy and passion to his role,” writes De’Shazer to the Star-Revue.

“At one of our events of the tech community in NYC, Vander volunteered to cater when we were looking for a vendor. I had no idea before that that he was such an amazing chef. When I learned about his passion for food and watched as he coordinated the culinary plans for the masses at more and more events, I began encouraging him to go the startup route and pursue a small food venue.”

As a serial entrepreneur himself, would De’Shazer offer any words for wisdom for Carter’s first startup?

“I don’t think I would need to,” writes De’Shazer. “What really sets Vander apart is his ability to adapt for consumer demands.”

One day Carter was surprised with a promotion. “I’d never told him about when I was homeless…I just came to work everyday on time and dressed and ready to go and with that promotion came money,” he says. “I’d come back to the shelter and be like, Pizza for everybody! No waffles!” Carter cracks up at the memory.

Encouraged by De’Shazer, Carter began developing a food cart idea for the High Line. Though the project didn’t materialize, his preparation paid off.

Photo of Vander Carter by Gregg Richards.

Just like the SRO’s career services office, Carter maximized other free resources like the Brooklyn Public Library to pursue his business ideas. One day while requesting a book, a librarian surprised him by asking whether he was prepping for the library’s business plan competition. 

What competition? Carter asked.

The librarian told him about the annual PowerUP! Business Plan Competition hosted at the Brooklyn Public Library. The sign-up deadline was that very day.

Carter seized the moment. He altered his business plan and signed up for the competition. When he didn’t end up placing, he felt defeated — but not for long.

Carter realized he needed to scale back his proposal. “I literally explained everything,” admitted the perfectionist. Determined to win, he spent the next year streamlining his plan with a consultant.

After wowing judges with an expert presentation that included food tasting, Carter took home first place and $15,000 at PowerUP on his second try.

“It was the inception of everything…That money was the escape from my working at work and trying to save to further myself…work to me was this slave system of ‘just enough.’”

Sum in hand, Carter still had to work for others for a bit longer before he could begin working for himself. He had a disheartening work experience at a busy Brooklyn restaurant following 140 Ventures. Though he eventually quit the food prep job, Carter rationalizes the experience as more fodder for the type of boss he one day wants to be.

“I want to make sure I stay humble and treat others the way I would like to be treated, too, and look back to my experiences,” says Carter.

Next he worked at Provenance Meals at Carroll Gardens, an organic meal delivery business. Here Carter learned how to prepare vegan, gluten-free, and paleo food, which he calls “research” for his JestGreen entrees. Provenance Meals also taught him about seasonal menus and portioning.

After Provenance Meals, Carter dove head first into incubating JestGreen. He even gave himself a new business name, Chef V.

The entrepreneur sees food as a health-supporting tool for personal empowerment, productivity, and communal connection. Carter envisions community members engaging with each other as they gather around JestGreen’s mobile vending unit during meal times, much like his family gathered around plates of his perfect pancakes in New Jersey.

Ever original, Carter plans to design a custom mobile unit to vend JestGreen meals on the street. This “part human, part machine” vending experience is slated to hit the streets by spring 2018, if all goes according to Chef V’s plans.

Carter has designed JestGreen’s extensive menus to support healthy, productive lifestyles. Not only does he want JestGreen’s customers (which he calls “users” in a move away from traditional transactions) to experience joy when ordering fresh food, but he wants the meals prepared joyfully by his own staff, unlike the robotic preparation he’s experienced working on past food trucks.

From business plan development and social media to menu testing and food photography, JestGreen has been so far a solo venture. “I’m a jack of all trades,” says Carter proudly. “I even built my tent from scratch.”

JestGreen meals taste as good as they look. Photo by Vander Carter.

Carter caters to the Star-Revue

When he stops by for his interview, the Star-Revue office is treated to a taste of Carter’s culinary talent.

Served in both wrap and taco form, Star-Revue staff crunch down on savory chunks of eggplant, peach salsa, carrot, and corn, all enveloped in a glossy collard green instead of a starchy bun. Though vegan, the eggplant offers nutty, protein-like bites thanks to its skillful preparation.

Carter — slightly nervous awaiting our reactions — says that he was inspired by Lebanese dishes, which often involve eggplant and spices like cumin and cinnamon.

“It’s interesting,” says fellow reporter Nathan Wiser. The plant-packed wrap grows on him. For George Fiala, the paper’s publisher and editor, the collard green was a first.  “I was hoping it wasn’t seaweed,” says Fiala appreciatively, mid-chew.

Carter’s dishes reflect his experiences learning different cultures’ cuisines, like a novelist might use the memory of a place visited to set the stage for a chapter.

After eating, he wants to know how to improve. “What’d you think? Do you feel it needs a dipping sauce?” It doesn’t, this reporter assures him, finishing every bite.

Turns out the healthy lunch is also good for wallets — Chef V spent a total of $10 on all the ingredients, fresh from Borough Market Hall.

#FarmtoStreet

JestGreen’s frequent social media hashtag and slogan, #FarmtoStreet, is part of a larger social media trend that supports the bounty of local farms serving urban eaters. The phrase might ring of “farm to table,” which refers to a similar food chain and often evokes high priced and high brow meals in posh organic-only restaurants.

In the simplest sense, though, since the street is between the farm and the table, the street is more inclusive of more community. JestGreen emphasizes a kitchen for the street where there’s no barrier of dress code or paycheck to enjoy wholesome food; Carter sees this as a fairly unchartered market.

Seriously, though: how does Carter plan to keep prices tenable for quality fresh produce?

“I plan to use everything and not throw away too much of anything,” he replies. For instance: “When I peel the carrots, I save the peels, I use them for stock.” The chef maximizes vegetables like he does his life experiences — by repurposing every part. He also likes buying in bulk and finding products with good shelf lives.

Most people write off fresh produce as too expensive, says Carter, when it’s really items like dairy products, which have already involved human preparation, that rack up the bill.

Hence his startup’s name, the JestGreen founder also wants to debunk health buzzwords as enjoyable eats.

“Those words like vegan, gluten free, and vegetarian — I produce all of those things, but I find that they are turn offs for some people like,” says Carter. “I want to give people a transparent product that is just what I say it is — just good food. That’s all it is…I’m just cooking from the heart, and cooking in a basic way, and being mindful of really trying to create a product that everyone can enjoy that’s healthy, and not a selected part of society. Everyone needs to have access to healthier food.”

The first time Carter walked into Whole Foods, he cried.

“That’s the first time I felt class,” he says. Growing up, Carter’s local supermarkets were “like bodegas.” The ripe, unblemished fruits and vegetables on display at Whole Foods were premium products unavailable to him growing up, a barrier that boils down to money.

Carter strongly believes that access to healthy food shouldn’t be an issue of class.

“We were given a lot of the untouchables, the things people didn’t really to cook with and the leftovers to cook with, and innately those items aren’t that good for you, and you need to fatten them up, and they don’t taste well, fat adds flavor, so down the line, eventually health issues start to arise,” says Carter, remembering his early years. “And I noticed in my family that diabetes is a problem, hypertension is a problem. I watched my grandmother waste away.”

A cook’s community

JestGreen’s mission also involves giving back to the urban community through hiring out of “inner city culinary programs and inner city youth who have an interest in food.”

Carter has been a Carroll Gardens Association (CGA) tenant ever since a couple days before the calamitous Hurricane Sandy (thankfully, Carter was unscathed).

“I never expected to live in New York City, and once I got to Brooklyn, I kind of fell in love with my area,” says Carter. “I didn’t know I’d be Brooklyn-based, but I’m happy to be Brooklyn-based. Brooklyn is a place of innovation right now…And in my area, I feel an ultimate sense of community.”

Carter often barbecues for CGA events and has participated in the annual Southwest Brooklyn Fall Festival as a community vendor. Committed to locally owned businesses, the nonprofit has tried to connect Carter to financial and business resources within network, says Ben Fuller-Googins, CGA’s programming and planning director.

Carter and CGA both support a food co-op for Carroll Gardens that would offer the community fresh, affordable food.

“We do believe this model is worth exploring as a way to leverage the community’s collective buying power to ensure access to fresh and affordable food,” says Fuller-Googins. “There are several existing models that we can draw from, including the Central Brooklyn Food Co-Op.” Based in Bed-Stuy, the Central Brooklyn Food Co-Op is owned entirely by working members in a lower income community.

Where to from here?

In fall 2016, Carter broke his knee during a heated argument with a friend. The injury slowed his momentum, but he’s learning to take his time on the road to recovery. “But, everything happens for a reason,” says Carter, “and I try to take anything as a powerful moment.”

Carter still sees himself in “phase one” of the startup — still learning the city, the business, and continuing events that promote his venture while perfecting his products. Through the end of 2017, Carter will continue repping JestGreen at street fairs, markets, and at events that he produces himself. On the quest for more investors, Carter will launch a Kickstarter campaign for JestGreen this fall.

Though currently an army of one, Carter knows his self-sufficiency will only stretch so far. He also plans to hire — potentially first as paid interns — sous chefs, prep cooks, and social media marketing consultants. He eventually wants collaborators to help him build mobile apps.

How many hours a week does he dedicate to JestGreen?

“My life,” he laughs with a hint of exhaustion. “It’s like a baby. It wakes up in the middle of the night crying. I have to rock it back to sleep. I’m always really always working.”

Thankfully, now his family have his back. Since his first-place win at the library, Carter’s parents have “been on board ever since.” Just as he goes by #ChefV, his mom proudly uses the hashtag #JestMom. Though his grandmother is no longer with us, she’d surely get a hashtag, too.

Devoted to playful innovation, what would Carter tell parents who scold kids for playing with their food?

“You should definitely let your kids play with their food. And give them opportunities to be unique and make mistakes, because that is the essence of nothing’s perfect, no one’s perfect.”

If your kid is anti-veggies, says Carter, bring a sense of fun to the table. “Surprise them. Do some vegetables in a different way. Maybe make a dessert with a vegetable…just like we are limitless, there are limitless options of things you can do with a carrot.”

At the end of the day, Chef V brings it back to his brand of entrepreneurial spirit: boundless ingenuity and a full heart.

Follow Carter’s startup a www.jestgreen.com.

For tickets to JestGreen’s barbecue event on August 20, see here. 

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