An Interview with Gege Manolis about the Sam Vincent Foundation

Gege Manolis, founding, beloved, and legendary Step One teacher, taught at the school from 1983 to July 2011 when her son Sam Vincent died. Since then, Gege has worked tirelessly on the nonprofit Sam Vincent Foundation, which honors his love of cooking and his legacy.

Sam Vincent is also the dear son of former Step One teacher Charlie Vincent and his second mom Susan Ireland. We spoke with Gege about Sams passion for cooking, how the Sam Vincent Foundation got its start, and its current work.

You may donate to the Foundation through their website (samvincentfoundation.org) or send checks made out to Sam Vincent Foundation to 1442A Walnut St. #182, Berkeley, CA 94709. Donations make it possible to operate the program twice yearly, and provide participants with chefs whites, organic food, chefs knives and more.

How did Sam get his start with cooking?

Very early! He ate a piece of raw garlic when he was 2. He held a chefs knife when he was 5 and got a creme brûlée torch when he was 13. He came into the world knowing his purpose with great passion: he was so hungry to learn all the culinary skills. I did my part by finding him opportunities to learn. One of Sams favorite cuisines was Japanese for its beautiful presentation, balance, and freshness. So I asked Keiko Lightner, who was a Step One teacher and is of Japanese heritage, to teach Sam how to make sushi. When he was 8, he was fanning sushi rice and shopping at Tokyo Fish with her.

At age 11, Sam went to Sur La Table for a knife skills class. Everyone else in the class was an adult. The instructor was a little wary at first — ‘Whos this kid?’ — but by the end he said Sam had phenomenal culinary skills. Later this same teacher invited Sam to cook with him at his home and gave Sam one of his special chefs knives. I saw it from Sam’s childhood to his work in restaurants as he matured: people who loved cooking recognized purpose in him.

What was it like to spend time with Sam in the kitchen?

Sam was gregarious and inclusive; he could talk to anyone. People loved him. His restaurant mentors (Paul Canales of Oliveto, now Chef/Owner at Duende; Evan Crandall of Hotel Rex, now Executive Chef of the Foundation) taught Sam traditional skills, so his food was very precise and deeply focused. Most of all, it was filled with love. Coming home from his restaurant work, his friends would be over at 1 or 2 in the morning and hed be cooking; hed be keeping people awake feeding them!

Sam was influenced by my family culture, which is Greek: any gathering we held was huge and centered around food. In Greece, food is wealth, food is life, and Sam loved feeding people. The word foodwas adjacent to the word lovefor him. We would often gather at Charlie and Susan’s and Sam would cook for all of us!  The Cesar Chavez quote: To give someone your food is to give them your hearthas always reminded me of my Sam.

Sam’s love of cooking was infectious; he and his friends cooked together from when they were 9 years old. He inspired many friends to go on and cook professionally. Our chefs and guest chefs for the Sam Vincent Foundation, who are drawn from this group of Sams dear friends, are chefs and sous chefs at restaurants like Clove and Hoof, Saison, and Duende. 

How did the Foundation begin?

Sams mentor chef Evan Crandall in San Francisco came up with the idea, and 4 or 5 of us launched it. But really it came very organically out of Sams community. After he died, friends of his were at my house every day for over a year. Immediately after his funeral, all his friends got together and cooked a big Greek-Irish inspired meal. So the community, the cooking, were there right away. It was an important way for us to be together.

Sam died July 30th, and on August 11, 2011 all his friends got together and had a benefit show that raised $2,000. One of his dearest friends brought me the money in an envelope. I put the envelope behind Sam’s picture and when we opened our foundation’s bank account, that $2,000 was the money we used. All his loving friends who thought to help me, I wanted them to know that the money went to helping others and honoring Sams legacy.

On the Foundations current 9-member board, every person knew and loved Sam. I wanted the Foundation to be small and organic in that way. I knew how much people were hurting and wanted to honor them and do something healing. If the Foundation got too huge, too abstract, it would be too far away from Sam.

Tell me about the Foundation: how it operates.

We just started our spring program on March 6th! We have a Fall and a Spring session each year, at the Growing Leaders kitchen inside Willard Middle School. Our program chefs (several regulars and rotating guest chefs) work with at-risk youth on their culinary skills and confidence, and our programs have inspired 33 youths so far.

Every year, I see an awakening happen in the participants. We are giving them a place to come thats safe, thats loving. And youre getting their hands on something, which is the best way to learn. As a teacher, I always tried to do more observing than speaking, and thats the model we follow. The chefs do talk and they explain things, but they also step back and you see the youthsinternal motivation just blossom.

All the youth in our program wear chefs whites. Thats because when Sam did his first organized cooking program, they wore them, and it meant so much to him. A lot of the youth that we work with may not have used knives before. They havent eaten the foods we present (for instance, for our Fall 2016 final feast, kids cultured and prepared their own sambal and kimchee). With the chefs whites, right off the bat, they feel like they are being taken seriously.

We run our program as a professional kitchen. We give them responsibilities: to put their cell phones in the basket, sign up for a job, sign in and sign out. They wash dishes, sweep the floor. We have a family meal, which is a tradition that  Sam loved always at the end of the night, working in restaurants.

Sams favorite ingredients in his cooking were lemon, rosemary, and garlic and we give those ingredients to the youth, along with a binder full of the recipes they have prepared. After our Fall Session this year, we got a letter from one of our young chefs saying that she had used the garlic to make tortilla soup, and the lemon to make lemon meringue pie. It is inspiring to see them take what theyve learned into their lives and carry Sams legacy forward.

Does your work with the Foundation connect to your background in teaching?

Very much so. When I taught kindergarten, we had a sign on the door that saidBelieve the best in everyone. I believe everybody is born with a brilliance. What you need to inspire that brilliance, to make it bloom, is a safe, encouraging, firm but fair environment. With boundaries and expectations that helps youth feel safe. The goal of the Foundation isnt necessarily to have the students become chefs. Our goal at this middle school age, when many of them feel they arent worth much, is to help them with confidence, to help them feel worthy.

With the kindergarteners I would hug them everyday when they came in: to get a vibe on how they were doing and greet them for a new day together. Then, hugging them when they left would be a way to say their presence was important to me. At the Foundation, I work with the chefs on their teaching, but I also take pictures, which is a role I created for myself so I can document our programs and be in the kitchen. I hug the middle schoolers when they come in and leave, just like I did with my kindergarteners. In middle school, they are asked not to be children anymore, but they are. They need warmth and connection.

What are you proudest of about the Foundation?

I feel like weve done Sam proud. Not just in the direct things we do to honor him I always serve cutie tangerines in every class because they were Sams favorite. We go around the table at the beginning of our “family meal” and say what we are grateful for and every time we toast to Sam. But we honor Sam the most by giving the youth a space to grow, be themselves, feel purposeful, find a passion. Thats how we are honoring Sams beautiful and fierce spirit.