The Food Lady: Chopping it up with VanChef's Lisanne Buik

Lisanne Buik is co-founder of VanChefs*, an Amsterdam-based catering business run on the principles of the sharing economy.

VanChefs provides the platform for turning her business philosophy into nourishment. A range of chefs offer their creations to businesses and individuals that crave unique dining experiences, whether it’s food trucks at a wedding or Surinamese appetizers at the office Christmas party.

“Maybe I’m not a business person,” she says.

She loved stories growing up, especially the Greek Epics.

“I grew up in a village in the countryside of Leiden, and I went to primary school in that village and I didn’t connect with any of the other people in my class,” she remembers.

“I wanted to meet new people, so that’s what I did. I got into [high] school in Rotterdam and I met new people, and that happened to be a school where I had a classical education.”

She wanted to study Chinese languages at university, being captured by Buddhism and Chinese culture. To test the waters, she went to China on vacation with her parents. “I didn’t connect with the Chinese people and thought that I may have to get a more generic education, and afterwards I can move to China and do business there.”

Resolved, she landed in international business. “Looking at philosophy through a business perspective really felt like a coming home,” she says of her master’s degree in sustainability from a business ethics viewpoint.

She went on to work in the sustainable development department of a corporation and became disillusioned.

“I didn’t feel like I was really doing anything,” she says. “What I really noticed was that the human connection to food is completely lost when you’re in a big corporation.”

What she did do was take her passion for food, forged growing up in the kitchen cooking with her mother and developed during her studies by experimenting with cuisine on her fellow students, and invest herself and her funds in VanChefs.

“At the beginning, they weren’t very happy with me,” she says of cooking for her fellow students. By the end, their attitudes had changed.

Now, she helms a startup that has seen significant press and success catering corporate events. But what she really wants is to focus more on catering in-home dinner parties, which is difficult in the frugal Dutch market.

She also doesn’t buy completely in to the idea that hyper scalability is better business. But at the same time, “it’s hard to get in the intellectual challenge and stay small and not go into the growth story of becoming a hyperscalable startup.”  

Her hesitation to grow her business into a Titan that can be sold is viewed negatively by some investors. It’s a difficult balance, she admits, “and maybe it’s not my goal enough to convince investors to invest in VanChefs, which is sort of a stalemate, because you either sell your soul or. . .” she trails off.

With investors, there’s also a gender problem. “If you would ask any investor that I’ve talked with about if they have a prejudice because I’m a woman, I’m convinced that 90% of them would say no.” This something that doesn’t occur when dealing with chefs, she notes.

 “Investors don’t see we  [women] don’t fit the normal picture, so we have to be more on our data and maybe even shout louder and be more bold. Yes, just get rid of your femininity, even just to fit their picture of a bold entrepreneur who’s going to make it, and because we don’t want to do that it seems hard to convince them.”

When compared to males, this seems to be the cause, “but I don’t know,” she concedes. “We women might just be a bit more realistic or modest in how we project what our success will be.”

Though, “it’s just never so black-and-white as men being super bold and taking unconsidered risks and women being modest,” she continues, “women are also bold, but I feel the investors in our world recognize themselves 30 years ago in all of these other guys.”

Yet, she is bold, risk-taking, focused, feminine, and although she thinks socialisation plays a large role, she thinks women are naturally safety-seeking and have less of men’s domination-seeking instinct.

 She doesn’t know if she wants to participate in the dick-measuring atmosphere aligned with business, and sites quotas as a way to balance business perspectives.

“It happens in every walk of life, and that’s why I believe in quotas in business and hiring more women on top. But on the other hand it makes me think of what these men are actually doing with this ego-centric behaviour, and it makes it even clearer that they do it because everybody does that. That’s just the culture, and participating in that culture and feeling that I’m handled differently makes me more conscious of what actually happens, and for that I’m really thankful, but also makes the question if I want to participate in that or not.”

VanChefs has earned many awards, including recognition by women’s organisations. She, though, isn’t sure about women being given separate awards, or even having special courses for women entrepreneurs at the startup in Amsterdam hub where Vanchefs was based because, “There’s no white-male club. I don’t know if I would want to be treated differently.”

Things are different for her as a women entrepreneur. “But even that, even for someone from the accelerator, or even for myself to actually admit that would already be a thing.”    


*This interview was conducted on December 15, 2014, shortly before Buik and her co-founder Emma Veerhuis left the company. It is presently run by United Food Concepts.