Like many cooks, Vanessa Simon got her start by watching and learning techniques while standing at the elbows of her mother and grandmother.
That childhood experience has helped her establish a new business called Vanessa’s Cuisine which makes a traditional Guyanese baking mix that’s now available in a few Waterloo Region specialty food stores.
But the blend of basic ingredients didn’t come about without what she describes as cooking being “in my DNA.”
“Vanessa’s Cuisine is love, it’s passion, it’s connection and all those things that your mother or grandmother taught you about real home-cooked food. That’s what it’s all about,” Simon says.
“And because I was the eldest of eight at home in Guyana, I had to cook and I got to know how to cook,” she adds.
It’s a common thread for many nascent food operations and the people behind them: family recipes and techniques evolved into bona fide small businesses launching in local communities and sometimes further.
Simon’s startup food company is producing a new, smartly packaged flour mix called “Bake Mix.” The name is simple enough, but there’s much more to a “bake” — the word used as a noun rather than a verb — than meets the eye.
A bake is a Guyanese pastry that is deeply embedded in the Caribbean country’s culinary culture. In Trinidad, they might be called “Trini floats,” in Jamaica it’s “festival,” but for Guyanese cooks, the fried dough is known as “bake.”
The idea to set up a business came from feedback from customers she cooked for at festivals and catering events.
“At those events, many people would encourage me to open a business making bake,” she says, adding that it’s a versatile pastry that can be eaten any time of the day.
Her full-time work is in health care as a nurse, but Simon has been cooking for catering, pop-up events and festivals and uses the commercial kitchen facilities at the Kitchener Market.
“We have bake with saltfish, we have bake with eggs. Anything. Most people have toast in the morning, but we have bake. Or sometimes at night for dinner, what we call tea. You can have it any time of the day. There’s no special time. It’s just our culture.”
As the region grows more culturally diverse, more diverse businesses are setting up shop. Whether it’s “food-preneurs” with tacos in the Puebla, Mexico style, Salvadoran pupusas, Afghani bolani or Nigerian Jollof rice.
Or, Guyanese “doughnuts” like Simon’s.
Bakes are shallow fried, slightly sweet and slightly bready, and have a crispy exterior from the hot vegetable oil. The recipe is a blend of flour, salt, water, baking powder, yeast and a touch of sugar, to which you add shortening and margarine.
“The bake is a big part of Guyanese food culture,” says Simon.
Like the wide world of flatbreads — lavash, fougasse, naan, focaccia and bannock, for instance — just about every country has its “doughnut:” Italian bombolone, Mexican churros, Portuguese malasadas, Polish paczki or Indian gulab jamun.
Simon is sole proprietor at Vanessa’s Cuisine and its only employee, so she took advantage of resources at the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre and Liftoff Waterloo Wellington.
Liftoff is an organization in collaboration with The Caribbean Canadian Association of Waterloo Region that is an incubator and accelerator program for Black early-stage and growth entrepreneurs.
Vanessa’s Cuisine Bake Mix is currently sold at Ok’s Tropical Supermarket in Kitchener, and Simon anticipates expanding into Oma Fresh Foods and A to Z African and Caribbean Groceries in the near future.
She says seeing her bake mix on the shelves drove home the reality that all her hard work meant something. It was an undertaking that involved measuring ingredients, recipe testing, and label and packaging research and development that she says “made the vision real.”
But Simon credits the encouraging response from the community she has been cooking for with the final inspiration to take the step into commercial food production.
“Cooking comes naturally to me. But I didn’t realize how good I was until I would do an event and someone would tell me how delicious the food was. Now I see the mix on the shelf and have watched someone take a package to buy. That was wow, for me. There are no words to express that feeling.”