by Selena Haynes | photos courtesy TennesseePhotographs.com
Big flavors and creativity — for Chefs Eleni Vavouris and Joelle Upton, it’s all about balance, in both the kitchen and in life. In 2000, on their journey into the culinary industry, they met at Opryland Hotel’s Culinary Apprenticeship program. From there they launched two successful businesses, Savor the Flavor (STF) Events & Catering and EV Originals (EVO), an outgrowth of the catering business delivering salsas, sauces, marinades, and vinaigrettes to the masses.
Chef Eleni Vavouris, the EV in EVO, never planned for a career in the food industry. She grew up watching and learning from her Greek and Southern relatives. She had always viewed food as a stress-relieving hobby. She had a degree in Human Environmental Sciences and Psychology and was a year and a half into her Masters in Family Counseling when a friend saw her frustration with her current career choice and suggested she go to culinary school. “It all clicked at that point,” said Chef Vavouris. She then changed career paths and forged a culinary career.
It was during this change she met Chef Joelle Upton. Chef Upton says she has known since college she wanted to be in the industry. She says, “It was at Sullivan University, while getting a degree in catering, that I realized I was good at it. Shout-out to Chef Kim Jones!”
After completing their culinary education rotations, they started developing a business plan. “I used to want restaurants,” Chef Vavouris explains, “but Joelle made me go into catering [because of] cheaper start-up costs and we never looked back.”
Perseverance = Success
Like anything in life, working with someone for so long has its ups and downs. “Most days it is great! We have always worked well together [going back to] our very first rotation at Opryland,” says Chef Upton. She elaborates by noting, “Her [Chef Vavouris] strengths in the business and kitchen are my weaknesses and vice versa. We balance each other.” At the end of the day, it’s business needs first. “You can’t stay mad long at each other because work has to get done [and] events have to go out,” says Chef Upton.
They credit three things for their success: God, hardheaded-ness, and creative spirits. “We always see ourselves as the underdog.” Chef Upton clarified, “Part of that is being women in this industry. Part of that is being a minority in general, and always feeling the need to do more, be better, prove ourselves. That’s a constant in our heads, I believe. So we are always pushing ourselves.”
Although it can be a lot of work coupled with long days and nights, independence and gratitude keep them going. They say, “Only answering to each other and the ability to take time off whenever we’d like,” is a driving force. But ultimately, “It is clients who love our food and appreciate the work we put in to make their events amazing.”
Bold, Innovative, Fresh
To keep things fresh, they are always on the lookout for inspiration. Chef Upton says, “We get lots of inspiration from traveling – we travel to eat! We love trying new foods and learning about different cultures; whether here or abroad.” According to Chef Upton, Chef Vavouris has the knack of being able to taste foods/dishes and put her own spin on it or have a food or flavor combo spark an idea to create something totally new. This has come in handy with their EVO collection and to date, there haven’t been any duds in the flavor combinations. Chef Upton says, “[Chef Vavouris] has an amazing palette and generally knows what flavors will work together so she has a great track record.”
In terms of Middle Tennessee being a welcoming environment for LGBT+ owned businesses, Chef Upton says, “I think it’s getting there. Not necessarily because we are becoming a more welcoming, caring city/region/state but because it makes financial sense as the cities grow.” While they have not had any issues doing business in Middle Tennessee, they credit the LGBT+ community in ensuring doors remain open for all stating, “Discrimination never makes financial sense and I think organizations like the Nashville LGBT Chamber have done a great job of reinforcing that point and opening doors.”
As for the future of STF and EVO, expect the continuation of big things. “Both STF & EVO are all about big flavors and creativity,” says Chef Upton. ”Whether it’s a gala or wedding or a bottle of marinade, we want it to be delicious and memorable.” And Chef Vavouris is putting her palette to work while expanding EVO, “The craft series salsas, which are currently Smokey Bourbon and Nashville Hot, are going to be changing. I have lots more flavor ideas and combos up my sleeve!”
Looking back 10 years ago, Chefs Vavouris and Upton had a different picture of the future – “In some ways, we thought this journey would be easier and we’d be gazillionaires and retired by now.” However, they are thankful to the road they have created with Chef Upton saying, “The businesses have afforded us the opportunity to go and do things we never dreamed of.”