It’s nearly Thanksgiving, the biggest food centered holiday of the year, and if you’re the guest this year, you’re likely asking, “What can I bring?” If you need inspiration, it’s only a click away with The Traveling Epicurean website and YouTube channel.
The online conception of Madison resident Michel Vejar, The Traveling Epicurean was born of Vejar’s passions for both cooking and videography. Vejar shares not just a recipe, but the tips she develops through countless test kitchen moments as with her 5-minute pie crust. She experimented with measurements of butter and Crisco to come up with the ratio yielding the perfect result. Of her website, Michel says, "My dear friend Justine is the one who originally encouraged me to start it and to have a cooking show."
Mom to two middle schoolers, Michel is a consummate multi-tasker, devoting time to her kids, while also cultivating her own given talents and gifts. As a youth she recalls spending many afternoons with her mother, Maria, in their West Hartford kitchen. "We made homemade manicotti, meatballs and, or lasagna for different holiday get together's where our invite included a special request for one of those dishes.”
Michel also spent time in her Aunt Pat’s kitchen. “Every space on her counters was covered with homemade pasta laid out to dry on towels," recalls Vejar. "And in the center was a plate of pizzelles (Italian cookies) for the kids."
From a young age, Michel absorbed many tricks and tips, refining her skills over the years. When she dines out, she has a knack for detecting and recalling flavors that she can recreate once back in her own kitchen. “I don’t need to write recipes down. If I see it once, I will remember.”
Vejar’s education at Southern Connecticut State University as a student of Renaissance art and language included time in the Northeastern region of Italy in Urbino. It was there that Michel was awakened to the idea that European cultures are food-centric, in terms of how people care for each other. “When you see people in the piazza, they invite you to dine. They want to break bread with you. European cultures are built around food – it’s what brings people together.”
As the name suggests – The Traveling Epicurean – Vejar’s website reflects those same ideals, sharing people’s stories with food as the centerpiece. Her passion to share her love of cooking is rivaled by her role as a storyteller. One of the videos is filmed in a friend’s kitchen as he makes pasta using the exact tool his grandfather used while teaching him as a boy. In another, Michel introduces us to a friend who has the unusual annual tradition of baking a jaw-dropping 70 chocolate pecan pies for friends each holiday season. Michel even produced a video based on her recent experience at a Master Chef casting call in New York City. Each video offers up the backstory to recipes with flavorful results.
Vejar loves to test recipes and enjoys informal cook-offs with foodie friends. Her kids are two of her biggest fans calling her “Sauce Girl” for her savory concoctions. She created two new sauces specifically for her Master Chef audition, developing them as much for presentation as for taste. She was pleased with the final result. “They were delicious and the dish looked really pretty,” she notes.
The same grit she relies on in the kitchen has served Michel well behind the camera lens, and at the keyboard. Through countless hours of trial and error, she has taught herself how to produce videos that come across as polished, yet neighborly. You feel like you’re sitting at her kitchen counter while she whips up extraordinary dishes, sauces and baked goods. To film oneself is skill enough, but to come across on camera as knowledgeable yet friendly is a feat in itself. Michel has an idea in mind for how she wants the process of preparation to present on screen, and with the use of proper lighting, dishes (glass for side shots) and camera angles, she is able to produce professional quality videos.
Last year, she spent months burning the midnight oil as she struggled through the challenges of building her own website. Using Wordpress, she designed the site to her esthetic, learning to embed her YouTube videos with links to the blog and recipe for each one. She used Fiverr.com for assistance when needed, and has had moderate success using sponsors. It’s a fulltime job with disproportionate monetary reward. Beyond the actual filming, each production requires 5-10 hours of editing. “I wish someone would pay me for doing this,” she says with a laugh. But she’s not about to give it up, even contemplating pursuing a more formal broadcasting education.
She plans to learn i-Movie for Mac, in order to obtain more creative license over her videos. With the parameters set by her camera and YouTube, you can create a good product, but there are definite limitations. “I would just like to have more control with certain aspects,” she says.
The goal is to provide viewers with an entertaining and instructional video, and it’s a straightforward process when she is sharing her own recipes. But when Vejar invites other chefs to share their dishes, she is very respectful of their stories and how they prepare their food. She knows it can be a really big deal for someone to divulge their family’s secret recipe, and she is grateful when friends allow her to share their story and food.
At this point she can film and cook pretty much blindfolded, but she continues to strive for improvement. Her library of videos continues to grow, and The Traveling Epicurean invites viewers to share the journey.