How to Cook with Under a Buck: A Talk with the 99-Cent Chef

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Up today in the cooking-on-a-budget series, a Q&A with a blogger-cook-cinematographer-jester who puts together recipes using ingredients that cost $1 or under. It’s not quite as difficult as sticking to $1 a day for your entire food budget. But it’s certainly interesting, and you’ve got to be creative to pull off a meal using only foodstuffs that cost 99¢. On occasion, he even tries to imitate Julia Child recipes, liberally subbing in less expensive alternatives, like 69¢ a pound chicken leg quarters instead of duck confit.

Once again, I’ll repeat: Eating on a budget is not a contest; it’s a conversation. I’ve asked several other bloggers who write about their low-cost food adventures to answer questions similar to those posed to the 50 Bucks a Week trio, which started the entire conversation. The responses will be posted here to keep the conversation going.

Los Angeles-based blogger Billy Vasquez, a.k.a. The 99-Cent Chef, cooks with ingredients that each cost under a buck. He’s particularly a fan of 99¢ Only Stores, which recently hosted nine couples for weddings that each cost (yep) 99¢.

Cheapskate: How and why did you start writing about eating on a tight budget? Did it spring out of necessity, as a lark, or what?

Billy Vasquez: It all started in my childhood in Texas when Mom would dump her waitress tips on the kitchen table and my siblings and I would count and stack the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters — thus began my “penny pinching.”

We have 99¢ Only Stores in Los Angeles that I’ve frequented for what seems like forever. I work freelance as a cinematographer and digital effect artists in the film and video business, so economizing during slow work periods has often been a necessity. I have a special fascination with finding cooking ingredients from 99¢ Only Stores. My workmates began to tease me as I talked more and more of all the cheap foodstuffs I would find and cook with. I started challenging myself to create delicious entrees — I would prepare an evening meal for my date and gleefully announce, after receiving compliments, “I made everything using 99¢ ingredients!” Her jaw would drop; then a smile would take over. It was funny, after all! Soon I began calling myself “The 99 Cent Chef” as a lark.

As for creating The 99 Cent Chef blog, it started about four years ago, when I made a video called “The 99 Cent Chef Goes Shopping” as part of a performance piece for an art gallery (at the opening, I presented my video while serving the 99-cent hors d’oeuvres from behind a cooking table while dressed as a chef – basically, I catered the art opening!) The video performance was a hit and I felt I was onto something.

Around that time I became interested in blogs and how they combine all the artistic disciplines I’ve explored: photography, video, film, graphic design, and prose. Almost 2 years ago I decided to go legit and put it all that together with my interest in the culinary arts to create this food blog.

I am a great fan of comedy films from the silent era and screwball’s Golden Age. This informs how I present my blog – I strive to make my entries clever and humorous, short and unpredictable. My cooking style is straightforward and my recipes are fun to make. One blogger called me “Rachael Ray on Crack.”

CS: What are your ground rules? How exactly do you define what’s in your budget and what meets your standards and restrictions? Give us the fine print, including how you deal with beverages and dining out (that is, if you ever dine out).

BV: I create recipes with ingredients that each cost 99.99 cents or less. It can be anything from 99.99 cent 6 oz. frozen salmon fillets from The 99¢ Only Stores, to poblano chiles and other stuff at 99 cents a pound from my local Latin market. I’ll forage in Armenian Mom & Pop neighborhood delis, big-chain grocery store bargain bins, neighborhood farmers markets, strip-mall dollar stores — anywhere and everywhere.

I read the grocery mailers that come every Tuesday to find fresh vegetables and fruit on sale for the week. I’ve recently started reviewing restaurants, zooming in on Happy Hours and the cheapest entrees on the menu. As an example, I hit the cheapest Happy Hour in Beverly Hills, which included martinis and appetizers for $3.60 each. Here in Los Angeles the lowly taco truck is now preparing the hippest cuisine. Cheap is the new haute!

CS: What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started cooking and eating on a supertight budget? What are you dying to splurge on and eat right now?

BV: The hardest thing to do is turn a fancy recipe into a budget one. I look at all the ingredients and try to find inexpensive appetizing substitutions — it should be cheap, but mainly it has to taste good. If I want to splurge, I love barbecuing rib-eye steaks, but at $4-$6 a pound, it is an infrequent treat. As for dining out, I love to eat sushi anywhere and anytime –- and I do have a couple of 1/2 price & budget all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants that I patronize every once in a while. I am frugal most of the time, but I save enough to indulge.

CS: When you tell people about your food budget, what sort of reactions do you get?

BV: I do enjoy pushing the boundaries of skeptics. Nothing is better than seeing diners go from being apprehensive to asking for seconds. It can be a hard sell, but I take it as a challenge to my creativity, and I have good instincts for turning typical and classic dishes into 99 cent budget entrees. Julia Child’s take on the French classic “cassoulet” uses duck confit; well, I can’t afford that, but I can substitute chicken leg quarters for 69 cents a pound and white navy beans are less than a dollar a pound anywhere. Does it taste the same? Well, it tastes pretty darn good, and I’ve had no complaints so far.

CS: What have you learned about yourself, and about how people in general consume food and function as consumers, while you’ve been blogging about cooking and eating on the cheap?

BV: The main thing I’ve learned about myself is that I love to blog! Also, cooking can be fun. When you take away the anxiety of spending a bundle for expensive ingredients, you’ll find that there are many cheap and creative alternatives to a typical recipe. I’ve “favorited” dozens of recipe sites and food blogs, and I always stop at magazine racks to peruse the latest Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines for ideas. My blog visitors frequently comment about how their cooking has grown boring and how I’ve given them fun and cheap ideas for their next meal.

To find the freshest ingredients at discount stores, you do have to be selective in your shopping, I also stay away from overly processed food, and steer my readers to healthy fare like my Black Bean and Corn Salad, but I’m not above a fun party recipe like Vienna Sausage Corn Dogs or super-indulgent Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Now and then I’ll splurge on something like lobster tails to cook for my wife on Valentine’s Day, and sometimes that favorite rib-eye steak for barbecuing on a summer day, but most of the time I enjoy creating low cost cuisine. I strive to create easy and cheap dishes presented with scrumptious and sumptuous photography and clever videos.

Consumers will eat healthier and cheaper if they cook more at home. I hope my blog prods my audience in this direction.