🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now
Food Fight

The 99-Cent Chef

Brendan Francis Newnam Jun 6, 2008
Food Fight

The 99-Cent Chef

Brendan Francis Newnam Jun 6, 2008


Tess Vigeland: This week the United Nations held a global food summit to talk about the soaring price of the stuff we eat. It’s really bad in other parts of the world, but even here in the U.S., food bills jumped seven percent in April alone. Compare that to a five percent hike for all of 2007.

As part of Food Fight, our series looking at the world food crisis, we asked Brendan Newnam to find out how Americans are adapting.

Brendan Newnam: To find out how rising food prices affect people, I asked them:

Shopper 1: I buy in bulk where I can. Sometimes it goes bad because I’m single.

Shopper 2: Well, we’ve stopped buying things like soda and stuff like that. We just buy things we need.

Shopper 3: Milk used to be a staple. Now we just have to decide whether we really want it or not.

Newnam: Apparently vodka is still a staple in your family?

Shopper 4: Of course! For a party, you can’t just have milk.

Yes, but what about mixing up a white russian?

All the folks I talked to were outside my local Costco, which at five o’clock on a Wednesday was a madhouse. And that’s the scene at wholesale clubs around the country; Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club are doing swift business these days as more and more people respond to rising food prices by buying in bulk.

And why are they buying in bulk?

Marion Nestle: Well, the first thing that is happening is that people aren’t eating out as much.

Marion Nestle is a, well, let her tell you…

Nestle: And as a nutritionist, that’s something that seems really good to me. Food at home is healthier. It doesn’t have many calories and there are many, many reasons for cooking at home.

One of the main reasons cooking at home is healthier is because you don’t eat as much and the food generally doesn’t have as much fat, salt and sugar. Nestle, who teaches all about nutrition and public health at New York University, says the ground rules for eating healthy are simple:

Nestle: All you have to do is eat less, move more, eat plenty of vegetables and whole grains and don’t eat too much junk food. That’s really all there is to it.

Well, that’s not all there is to it. For example, a bag of potatoes is cheaper and will provide more meals than, say, a can of potato chips, but turning potatoes into a meal takes some doing.

Nestle: You have to be sophisticated in order to be able to do that. First of all, you have to have cooking facilities, you have to have pots, you have to have ingredients, you have to have spices, you have to have all these things where the costs add up and you have to know how to prepare foods. Most of all, you have to have time to do it.

That’s why people on tight budgets often turn to junk food where they can get cheap calories fast.

But that needn’t be. Meet Billy Vasquez, aka “The 99-cent Chef.”

Billy Vasquez: Nice to meet you. Welcome to the Village Green and to The 99-cent Chef’s kitchen.

Vasquez lives here in L.A., where runs a cooking blog that features meals made entirely out of ingredients he finds at his local 99-cent store. He got the idea when he was between jobs.

Vasquez: Well, it started with discovering the 99-cent store in my neighborhood. They have junk, but they also have some great things and when you find something great, a good food item, you want to go back and check it out.

So that’s what we did. As we drove to the 99-cent store to shop for dinner, I expected to find generic laundry detergents and old calendars and when I arrived… I found generic laundry detergent and old calendars, but there was also food — a lot of it.

Vasquez: Okay, I’m going to pick up some spinach — 6 ounces for 99 cents. This is usually about $2.50 at least at a regular store.

Newnam: Do you have to worry about the dates?

Vasquez: Hey, it’s still green. That’s all I care about.

Newnam: Can’t it turn green?

Vasquez: Here is crab — spelled with a K, green beans, a pound of pork sausage…

Newnam: Looks like it kind of is open there on the side.

Vasquez: Yeah, you’ve gotta watch out for that kind of thing. Let’s see… cheese ravioli, about two pounds of green grapes, tomato, cucumber, fresh produce, fresh butter, liverwurst, pumpkin seeds, chopped garlic, extra virgin olive oil, organic whole peel tomatoes, Hormel chili with beans, chunk light tuna, candy hot dogs with candy mustard on it…

Cashier: $10.03

When we got back to his kitchen, the chef worked his magic on our 99-cent purchases and within 15 minutes, we were sitting down to a meal of breaded pork chops and sauteed spinach and mushrooms on the side… oh, and two 99-cent Pabst Blue Ribbons.

Vasquez: Cheers!

Newnam: Bon appetit!

If you include those, the meal for two cost about $5.

When we were sated, I asked the chef why he blogged about 99-cent cuisine.

Vasquez: Because when you watch these cooking shows, everything has to be the best ingredients, the finest wine and I’m thinking “This isn’t the real world.” The real world is I have to go to work at eight in the morning and I’m not going to make this great omelet or when I come home at eight at night, there is no time to create this beautiful appetizer, entree and dessert, so what I like to riff on and work with is a very simple meal and the 99-cent lifestyle kind of provides that.

And since food prices will rise for the foreseeable future, the 99-cent lifestyle is something we can all embrace.

For Marketplace Money, I’m Brendan Newnam.

99-cent Marketplace Pork Loin and Spinach with Mushrooms Recipe


* 1 4 oz center cut pork loin chop

* 1/4 cup bread crumbs

* 1/2 package fresh spinach

* 1/2 package fresh mushrooms

* 1/4 cup 99-cent olive oil blend

* 1/4 cup 99-cent white wine

* salt and pepper to taste


Saute sliced mushrooms in 1 tablespoon olive oil blend; add spinach, white wine and cover over low heat. Salt and pepper pork loin. Whisk 1 egg in shallow bowl and coat pork loin chop thoroughly then dredge all sides in bread crumbs. Over a medium heat, fry breaded pork loin chop about 2 minutes each side until brown.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.