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Volunteer Spotlight: Julie Pranikoff, Guest Chef

Early this year, Big Big Table received a message from Julie Pranikoff asking about volunteer opportunities. She wrote, “I was so incredibly excited when I found your organization while researching food accessibility in Buffalo online today...I'm a self-taught, plant-based cook and baker. I have been hoping to find a like-minded space in town where I can volunteer and, ideally, donate the food that I make.” Julie went on to say that she makes a mean hummus,. Needless to say, we were interested!

Now, nearly 8 months later, we’re here to say: She makes a mean hummus – and a lot, lot more!

Why are you passionate about cooking?

Cooking allows me to combine my background in health and environmental psychology with my love of food. Prior to having a family, I studied the social and physical aspects of the environment that affect well-being. I am now interested in the role that access to healthy, tasty, fresh food can play in the creation and maintenance of a supportive environment. Over the past few years, I became more aware of food accessibility issues. I started donating to the food pantry in my children’s school district. I began volunteering regularly at another food pantry while also donating homemade baked goods to single-parent families who had experienced trauma. Then I found BBT.

When COVID became part of our lives, I gave myself the challenge to cook more - and to learn more about working in the kitchen. This goal, combined with my family’s membership at a CSA encouraged my research, experimentation, and learning in the kitchen. I am now an avid planner and menu-maker – and I love it!

I love the entire process of cooking, from researching recipes to prepping ingredients. I’m inspired by the colors and flavors. It’s incredible to watch ingredients transform on the stovetop. I’m eager with anticipation when I open the oven to see the final product.

I love to eat - and I have always loved to eat! And I know how good food makes me feel–both physically and emotionally. I want to share that with others.

What interests you about volunteering at Big Big Table?

I admire BBT’s commitment to providing delicious, wholesome food to the community. I admire the network of volunteer groups and connections BBT has developed throughout Buffalo. I’m impressed and inspired that BBT doesn’t just say they are open to everyone, they truly are. To be present in the cafe environment–where stigma and self-consciousness are removed–has been transformative for me and makes me want to be a more active part of the food justice movement.

On a more personal note, I discovered BBT when I was trying to find a way to combine my interests in food accessibility and cooking. On a whim, I started googling and was ecstatic with where it led me. BBT has given me an opportunity like no other. The first time I visited BBT, Mandy joined me for lunch and we spent more than an hour connecting. She immediately welcomed me into the space. Theresa, Heather and Rachel have supported and encouraged my cooking. I have grown so much from this experience and appreciate all they have taught me–and the trust they have placed in me.

What drew you to plant-based cooking? Do you have a favorite go-to dish for dinner at your house?

My interest in plant-based cooking comes from a combination of my belief in animal rights and my interest in the connection between diet and health.

I have always loved animals - all animals! When I was young, I would go outside after the rain and save the earthworms on the sidewalk from being stepped on. I grew up with lots of pets; and in 6th grade I did a research project on animal testing. As I grew older, I learned more about animal rights and became increasingly aware of the enormous range of available alternatives to animal products.

After college, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and I looked more deeply into the relationship between diet and health. I had been a vegetarian since I was 16 and, after this experience, a fully plant-based diet just felt right for me.

My go-to dish for dinner (and lunch, and even breakfast) is hummus! It has been a staple in my fridge since high school. I always have the ingredients on hand – as well as things to dip in it! It takes just minutes to make, and everyone I know enjoys it.

"I think a balance between humility and confidence is really important."

What is your culinary education background?

In college I took one of T. Colin Campbell’s first Vegetarian Nutrition courses. Campbell co-wrote the seminal book, The China Study which investigates the connection between diet and health. The class inspired me toward a lifelong exploration of this topic.

I am grateful for all of the free resources that are available for those looking to learn more about cooking. I have taken advantage of opportunities through and their partner site,–learning such things as knife handling, how to saute, and how to best cook different rice varieties. I have learned the importance of mise en place and am now more organized and prepared in the kitchen. My learning plan is based on the questions that arise in the kitchen: every time I am curious about something, I look it up! Recent curiosities have included the best technique to seed a tomato; the difference between brands of kosher salt; and how to make homemade plant-based butter–the answers to all of which (and much more!) I have found in videos, cookbooks and blogs.

What do you believe are strong characteristics a chef should hold?

I think a balance between humility and confidence is really important.

As a chef, you are just one part of the kitchen staff–and it is the entire group that keeps everything running smoothly. Every job is important and every person’s contribution is valuable. And the group interactions set the mood of the kitchen.

Specifically for a plant-based chef, I think that humility is very important. I consider myself a gentle, subtle activist. My aim is to win people over by making delicious food. For example, when I donate baked-goods, I share a list of ingredients, but do not overtly advertise that the items are plant-based. I love when people enjoy my food without any preconception of what something vegan will taste like. I never want to guilt someone or scare someone into eating something. I just want them to enjoy it. And if the experience opens them up to eating a more plant-based diet, that’s wonderful. I want them to learn from their own experience, and make their own decisions without feeling pressured.

A few months ago, when I cooked pasta at BBT, it was the first time I have had to carry a giant, commercial-sized pot of boiling water across a kitchen. I was intimidated at first–and then I told myself that I could do it. And I did. That really helped to foster my confidence in the kitchen. When I took a knife skills class, I appreciated that the instructor said that ultimately, if you are utilizing the knife safely, then you don’t have to chop exactly as shown. This helped give me confidence to work in the kitchen the way that is best for me - and to be open to trying new things.

What qualities do you believe make a strong kitchen staff?

At BBT, I have learned how important it is for the kitchen staff to work as a team. I appreciate that everyone is always willing to step in. This group is so welcoming that I feel comfortable asking for help whenever I need it–whether it’s assistance chopping vegetables, getting a reminder on how the new dishwashing system works, or directing me to where an ingredient is stored.

What’s your favorite vegetable?

If I had to choose – carrots. They are simple, sweet and crunchy on their own. They are a perfect vehicle for hummus (which you know I love). They are key to my favorite dessert: carrot cake. And, when grilled, they make a fun alternative to hotdogs!

If you are interested in volunteering with us at Big Big Table, please visit the Get Involved page.

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