Miller serves up a storm in kitchen, on court
In her fifth year, senior guard cooking up a unique career path
Published: Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 07:02
Vanessa Miller's kitchen is an oasis.
Framed by skyscraping snow banks that reach the second story — probably to catch a glimpse of what smells so delicious inside — the kitchen is a stainless-steel haven on the middle floor of a quaint domain nearly two miles from campus, hardly the typical setting in which a second-semester college senior resides. The wine is poured from bottles arranged neatly on a metal rack, not out of plastic spigots on cardboard boxes. Sitting on the dining table is "The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity." The chef is a bookworm these days: the only worm in sight.
Next to the stove, which will soon host a skillet shrimp appetizer with lemon juice, white wine and butter paired with homemade fried rice, are the ingredients, laid out in bowls and on plates, sans measuring devices. Exact measurements are useless; Miller's palate is the judge of this chef's culinary court.
Here, in the home with a giant heart framing the peephole on the front door and with the chef wearing a heart-shaped necklace, to cook is to love.
Allowing destiny to take over
Vanessa Miller doesn't pretend that cooking has been a passion throughout her 22 years on this planet. She was an unbearably picky eater as a child, like the month-long period when she refused to eat anything else but Hebrew National hot dogs. And they had to be Hebrew National. Nothing else would do for the 4-foot-8, 80-pound girl from Cincinnati.
Since those days of limited menus, Miller has grown up. She's slightly taller now — about 5 feet 2 inches, but still needs her housemate to reach the pots and pans on the highest shelves — and has branched out, no longer limiting her diet to packaged ballpark franks. More importantly, she has developed an uncanny talent for cooking, one that she hopes to parlay into a career as a chef and, eventually, a restaurateur.
The evolution began at age 16 when she started working front-of-the-house gigs in Ohio. Once she arrived at Tufts, Miller résumé-bombed Harvard Square eateries, eventually landing a job at Grafton Street Pub on Mass. Avenue.
"The guy who hired me looked at my résumé and said, ‘You're grossly under-qualified for this waitressing job; you'll probably only be training for a month and we'll let you go. But good luck,'" Miller said. "And that was my introduction to Grafton Street."
From there, she paid her dues as a waitress before taking a chance last April at an open position in the kitchen, working prep and eventually cooking on the line. On the verge of graduation, Miller is now ready for the next step, whether that involves attending culinary school or hopping right back into a professional kitchen.
"I joke around with her about possibly opening a restaurant one day with her," Kim Moynihan (LA '09), Miller's current housemate and former teammate with the Jumbos, said. "It's mostly a way for me to tip my hat to her and tell her that she's doing something that's really worthwhile.
"I've learned to really value gym time," she added. "Because whenever I'm home I'm going to be eating something delicious."
Back at her house, Miller stands over the sizzling skillet, hands darting like she's back on the basketball court swiping away errant passes. With sleeves carefully rolled up, hair tied in a bun and a towel draped out of her back pocket, her voice fills with excitement, making the conclusion to her story obvious.
Cooking is what Vanessa Miller is meant to do.
The meerkat mannerisms
Her nickname is Van, which makes sense until you see her operate like a sports car.
Whether on the basketball court or in the kitchen, Miller has always relied on top-notch speed and precision to set her apart. Watch Miller suit up for the Jumbos at Cousens Gym and you'll inevitably be treated to a whirlwind of deflections and help defense. She performs the unnoticed kind of perfection, where the only tangible part is the finished product — the two points added to Tufts' score or the plate of savory heaven placed on the table. What you don't see is Miller, who made it all happen from the beginning.
Probably because you blinked once and missed everything.
"She operates like a crazy person, which is just normal Van," senior tri-captain Lindsay Weiner said.
"Everybody on the team actually refers to it as my ‘meerkat mannerisms,' because they think that I resemble a meerkat in the way that I move and look, which I really appreciate," Miller said with a twinge of sarcasm in her voice. "Those come out in the kitchen too; I'm darting around everywhere."
The uncanny comparison — "They're my cousins!" Miller says — extends to her height, or lack thereof. At just a shade above 5 feet, she often draws comments in the kitchen, sometimes for her inability to reach the top shelf and sometimes for her oversized chef's outfit.
"Every time I worked with her, we always had a good time," Weiner, who worked as a waitress at Grafton Street last summer, said. "I made fun of how she's pretty short, which you think would be a detriment, but it's not. It was always fun trying to watch her jump up high to get the pots and pans on the top shelf … and her outfit made her look like a ninja."
Regardless of the comparison, be it meerkat or ninja, the statistics eventually emerged thanks to her claustrophobia-inducing defense. In 2009-10, Miller was named the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year when she led the league with 3.15 steals per game and 85 overall. This season, she's first with three per game in conference play, and would be fourth overall had she played in enough games to qualify. Her 181 career steals ranks her sixth in program history.