Although he boasts award-winning cooking talent that has taken him across the world, Chef Varin Keokitvon chose to lay his chef hat at FareStart, a Seattle nonprofit that provides job training and placement for low-income and homeless people in the Seattle area.
The 28-year-old chef with kind eyes and a humble demeanor, said his work at FareStart “all revolves around the food and the students.”
Keokitvon has been with FareStart since starting as a retail sous chef in 2009, except for a brief hiatus last year from January to September, when he studied cuisine in Spain, thanks to a scholarship from the Spanish government. In Spain, he served as a representative from one of fifteen countries to learn about Spanish cuisine, gastronomy and food. Now Keokitvon serves as FareStart’s retail operations chef, overseeing the catering, cafe and restaurant functions. Before this, he was a FareStart volunteer, and worked at Elliott’s Oyster House and Union Square Grill.
Keokitvon was born in Laos, where he lived for six months before his family had to escape to Thailand because his father was a prisoner of war. After two years in Thailand, Keokitvon’s aunt sponsored their immigration to the U.S.
Raised in Seattle’s Rainier Beach area, Keokitvon worked his first kitchen job at the Woodland Park Zoo. He said he didn’t really take that job seriously, but he enjoyed cooking. For the young chef, it wasn’t until seeing the World Pastry Team Championships on TV that he realized he had a serious passion for food.
Dan Johnson, vice president of development and marketing for FareStart, said hiring Keokitvon was a no-brainer. Keokitvon started with FareStart as one of many volunteers from the local chef and hospitality community. When he applied for an opening in the kitchen, he was a “slam-dunk choice,” Johnson said.
Besides being a good values match for FareStart, Keokitvon is an extremely talented chef, said Johnson. He’s won multiple awards and scholarships, including the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise and the National Chaine des Rotisseurs Jeune Commis competition.
Yet Keokitvon remains humble. “Food has been good to me,” he explained.
For the chef, hearing stories from students is one of the most valuable parts of the job.
“Just hearing what people have gone through is incredible and very empowering and inspiring,” he said, adding that it’s important to be sensitive to where a student has been and currently is in their life. Sometimes, it can be hard to process some of the hardships FareStart students face, but once they graduate, it’s really gratifying, he said.
“It’s then that you’re like ‘Wow, that person came from such a bad deal and they made it,’” Keokitvon said. “That’s what keeps you going, though, is the stories.”
Now, with more responsibilities in his new position, Keokitvon said he isn’t able to interact with students as much as he’d like, though he tries to be in the kitchen as much as possible to stay connected.
Paul Phillips, who went through the FareStart program and is now chef instructor for the FareStart catering department, said Keokitvon takes an open and involved leadership approach.
“A lot of times, chefs can be a little stingy about giving away their knowledge, and he’s not like that,” said Phillips, 31. “As the chef here, he’s not that. He’s willing to teach his employees; he wants them to learn. He has a lot of knowledge to give away, so it’s great.”
Phillips, who has worked with the chef for nearly two years, said he also appreciates his sense of humor. Once, a formerly pregnant FareStart employee accidentally set the blender speed too high making a vinaigrette, and the dressing sprayed everywhere. While she was cleaning up, Chef Varin took the remainder of the dressing out of the blender and snucked it away in a fridge.
Seven months later, Keokitvon presented that same vinaigrette as a gift at that employee’s baby shower — one container for the mother, and one for baby. The gift was hilarious and completely unexpected, Phillips said.
His humor and resourcefulness makes cooking with Keokitvon fun, Phillips said.
“It’s always something new, it’s always something creative with Chef Varin,” he said. “He’s always thinking of new recipes, new things to do, new pastries, new dishes. (We’re) constantly doing something different.”
Coming up with new ideas and remaining forward-thinking is a necessity at FareStart.
“We’re looking at how to grow sustainably in the future,” said Keokitvon. “It’s not just thinking about this week or next week anymore, it’s thinking about next year or two years from now. … [I]t’s a great challenge. ”