Chef Erik Youngs wears his heart on his sleeve and his passions tattooed on his arms. Among the inky collection of symbols and inspirations, his most prominent work of body art is his company logo—VooDoo Chef. In some circles, he’s most famously known as the man behind the VooDoo Chef line of sauces and seasonings. In other circles, he’s known as a beloved teacher who’s launched the culinary careers of a generation of students.
The Tampa, Florida-based entrepreneur and educator is also a podcaster and rising social media star who embodies a “work hard, play hard and be humble” philosophy. “You have to be one better than you were yesterday, he says. “Not better than anyone else in the room. Just one better than you were yesterday.” It’s an approach to life he impresses upon his students, too. He urges them to apply the knowledge they learn on a daily basis. “That’s the way to go from proficiency to mastery, because when you get to mastery that’s when you hit the upper echelon of what you do,” he says.
Youngs got his first taste of the restaurant business as a teenager when he was hired as a busboy at a local Tampa restaurant. He recalls: “One of my buddies said, ‘Do you want to work with me tonight?’ The only thing I heard was, ‘Do you want to hang out with me tonight?’ It was more about the camaraderie. The thing that stuck was that I was 14, 15 years old and I was accepted like I was 25, 30 by whoever was in the kitchen. That acceptance in our industry transcends age, language, color and ethnicity. I was included. It left a lasting impression.”
He would go on to rise through the ranks and run kitchens at restaurants in the Specialty Restaurants Corporation chain. “In hindsight, it was more about the people than the food. I fell in love with the people, and we were able to accomplish some amazing things,” he says.
Just as Youngs was about to accept a new position as chef at another restaurant within the corporate chain, he got a call asking if he was interested in interviewing for a teaching job at Hillsborough High School, just north of downtown Tampa. “I jumped at it and haven’t looked back,” he says. The opportunity was not only unexpected, it was ironic. “I hated high school. I hated it so much I eventually went back and taught it,” he jokes. He admits that with his tattoos, piercings and liberal use of F-bombs, he didn’t sport the look of a typical high school teacher. But that hasn’t stood in the way of Youngs amassing an armload of prestigious teaching awards.
Youngs’ longest stint was at another Tampa school, Chamberlain High, which had faced challenges during his 15-year tenure there. “It became of one the roughest schools in the district,” he says. To raise funds, Youngs launched a sauce and seasonings line with proceeds benefiting the school’s culinary program. The business begot the VooDoo Chef Foundation to support the community through food and education. In a career marked by milestones, some of which had already been permanently memorialized in ink on Youngs’ body, the VooDoo Chef logo was added to his left forearm the day “the seasonings made it into Publix Supermarket and it all became real,” he says. The foundation is committed to awarding $100,000 in culinary scholarships annually.
While the foundation has helped countless young people get early training in the culinary arts, Youngs saw a disturbing pattern of those same food-services hopefuls leaving to further their culinary education and launch their careers in major cities like Miami, New York and Los Angeles. They left Tampa behind. He wondered, “How am I supporting the community if these students are leaving and never coming back?” For Youngs, the answer was a career move to design and refocus a culinary arts and hospitality program at Tampa’s Erwin Technical College to keep students local. The program was off to a meteoric start when the Covid-19 pandemic torpedoed its momentum. But Youngs says the program is “back on an upward swing.” And he is back teaching, inspiring and giving his students the feeling that hooked him in his very first restaurant job: a sense of inclusion and belonging.
Why Mercer Culinary
“You absolutely have to have the right tool for the right job. We can talk about what that right tool is. Who makes it is a different story. A chef’s knife, for instance, is our right hand. It’s more than a tool. It’s the feel, it’s the love, it’s the weight, it’s the durability. And it’s the people who make it and back it. How they’re going to take care of you as much as you’re going to take care of that knife. When you’re talking about something that’s a part of a school and making an impact, we have to make sure we’re giving students quality, we’re giving them somebody who is going to support that product and something that’s going to be with them for life. With Mercer, we’re doing that holistically and that’s very important.”