Vegan chef and civil society activist [because no civil society treats animals the way we do]. She resides in Cape Town, South Africa with her husband and her blind cat Cassie, also known as Snucky Puckie Pookie Pie Lovebug McFoefel Face.
On Being A Vegan Chef
I am an accidental chef. A career in cheffing was the last thing in the world I would have ever considered. I hated cooking. With a passion. I wanted to be the writer of the next great novel, an Oscar winning actress, a model, a nun, a circus clown, a fighter pilot, a teacher – or whatever career took my fancy at any given point in time. A chef? NO with a capital en oh. Not only did I loathe spending time in the kitchen, but I once made food so bad that it made my sister’s friends cry [true story]. Even my home ec teacher told me that the only hope for me was to marry a wealthy husband. She ended off with ‘I will pray for you.’
But life doesn’t always take us where we want to be, but where we need to be.
In 2013, I was invited to join up as a volunteer deckhand on a conservation ship. At the time of joining, the ship was in dry dock for repairs and the only crew at that point was the captain, the engineer and I [more crew would eventually join]. It kind of fell on me to do the cooking. It was almost enough to make me quit and I spent the first few nights in my bunk crying, feeling like the biggest failure in the world. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do this for three months. I considered giving up. My culinary skills included burning toast and either undercooking or overcooking rice. That was pretty much the extent of my talent in the kitchen.
My pride, however, was stronger than my burning desire to quit. So I sucked up my pity party and decided that I was going to at least give it my best shot. I suspected that the Captain would sooner rather than later send me back to deck to paint or fiberglass or grind or sand. But at least I could say I tried.
I started to ferociously read every single cookbook, every single recipe I could get my hands on – obsessively. Like other people read novels, I read cookbooks and recipes every free second I got. And it paid off. As it turned out, I was apparently really good at making food. I may not have a creative bone in my body [despite my mother being an artist], but I found that my ingredients were my paint and my plates were my canvasses. I fell head over heels in love with, of all the things in the world, cooking.
After my three month stint on the ship, I headed back home. A friend of mine had just opened up our city’s first all vegan restaurant and asked me to be her head chef. I was so gobsmacked, you could have knocked me out with a wet feather. The only experience I had was cooking a set breakfast, lunch and dinner for a maximum of 8 people. I had no restaurant experience and knew more about rocket science than I did about running a commercial kitchen. I had ‘faked it till I made it’ so far and I was willing to push the envelope a little further, so I accepted the position.
I took to it like a duck to water. The challenge of communication and managing a brigade; and the rush of text book timing was like a drug. I couldn’t get enough of it. At the end of each day I was so tired I couldn’t remember my own name, but the high I felt made me feel like I could conquer the world. I was in my element. My kitchen and menu went on to win local and international awards. I ended up cooking for local and international celebrities; heading up catering for large, high profile international events; having recipes published and running the galleys on two more conservation ships.
But I soon came to realize that there was a lot more to being a vegan chef than just winning awards or creating best selling dishes. I had a tremendous responsibility on my hands.
Veganism was still relatively new back then. Vegetarianism was still seen as ‘quirky’ and just the right amount of hippie, but veganism was a concept which discombobulated most people. It is only in the last 4 years or so that veganism became a mainstream concept. Mention vegan food and most people thought [and still do] that it involved munching on carrots and licking cardboard as a treat. As a vegan chef, I have a responsibility to crush that notion like I crush tempered cumin seeds in my mortar and pestle. As a representative for the animals, the food I serve has to convince people that you don’t have to sacrifice taste, texture, gastric pleasure and/or health if you omit animal products from your plate. One meal could literally be the difference between life and death for an animal. A substandard dish can put people off veganism forever and perpetuate the myth that vegan food is bland, unappetizing, unhealthy and boring. A top quality dish is the best and quickest way to advocate for animals.
All this being said, what I love more than being a vegan chef, is teaching people HOW to cook vegan. I want each and every person to be empowered to cook vegan at home and inspire others to explore the fantastic, creative and delicious world that is kindness and compassion. Because the more people know, the more they are empowered, and the more they are empowered, the more they can do. Or in this case, the more animals they save.