Our Awakening Times editor and vegan enthusiast, interviews Stephanie Prather, Jessica Mckenzie and Manuel Lynch of Vegan Gastronomy Culinary Academy (www.vegangastronomy.com), the world’s leading company for learning to veganise any mainstream dish and ground-breaking pioneer in the research and development of plant based food products. The school has been running since 2013 and offers comprehensive on-site and on-line training in vegan cuisine.
The three of them came together from different countries and backgrounds, each bringing a unique skill set, philosophy and approach the plant based food and hospitality industries and between them there is some special alchemy happening in Naxos, Greece, where the school is based.
Tell us a bit about how the cooking school started; how long it has been running and what the inspiration was.
Stephanie Prather (SP): We're going into our eighth year now and Manuel and I started it in Majorca, Spain, the main city of which is called Palma. The beginning and impetus was that we knew that there was interest in the vegan community, people were curious about plant based food, so we went into the centre of Majorca, we went into a market which had a history, it was over 130 years old, it’s like the heart and centre of the whole island.
While they have a lot of tourists there, people like owners of restaurants and chefs, still go there every single day and we invited over 100 chefs from various restaurants to come to a vegan or plant based workshop. We thought we'd get one or two or three and we were actually overwhelmed, we had over 50 people show up! It was just three hour workshop and we were really blown away by the interest. In 2021, plant based food is really world known; it's almost in every corner of the earth, but back then it was still a little bit new and so we were impressed with how much traction and interest we were starting to get.
We didn't just want to be another workshop where do you three hours here and three hours there, we could see that there was really nothing in the vegan space anywhere in Europe and so we decided to create an entire Academy. That's when we dove in, because we realised that three hours of training isn't going to do much for anybody. It was a nice start, but we needed to create a curriculum that was going to be much more encompassing, much wider. Since then we have had students and trained people from literally every corner of the earth, from every continent, except Antarctica…
It's been a labour of love and we have expanded into various aspects, a school, of course, but we also created the products that we utilise, because we found that when we were developing the curriculum, there were certain things that did not exist in the market. That’s when Jessica, she was a student and has become our primary instructor for pastry and baking, and Manuel developed the products to create our recipes, to take them to the next level. We really never started out to be a product company, but when we were working on recipes, we went out into the market, looking for things and they just weren't there. We scoured the planet and couldn't find the things that we needed. That's why it ended up, just at of necessity, having to create some products.
What is your approach to curriculum design?
SP: Well, the curriculum design has to be very, very comprehensive. Interestingly enough, we teach the first time, basic, entry level, home-based chef, all the way up to somebody who has 30 to 40 years of culinary experience that has been in kitchens for many more hours than he or she can count. We only have two prerequisites: a desire to become one of our students and a basic level of English, because we only teach in English. Oddly enough, most people are shocked when they hear that most of our students are not vegan. So, we’ve trained chefs on yachts, chefs in hotels, we've trained people in Iberostar, which is a very large hotel company around the world, based in Majorca, Spain and they're on almost every continent, because they're in the Spanish speaking world. We've trained tonnes of their chefs from all over, from Africa, to the Caribbean and into Europe. The company realised that while they serve all types of food, every single year, they have more and more requests for you for different niches or different types of diets, always including plant based and vegan.
Now your school has shifted to Naxos in Greece. What was the motivation behind that?
SP: Many different reasons. We were in Spain for many years and we loved it. We have always promoted ourselves as being the leader in the vegan community, in the vegan world, but we we've also piggybacked on the idea of the Mediterranean diet and of course, Spain is in the Mediterranean, but when you hear the word Mediterranean, what's one of the first countries you think of?
TAT: Greece, of course.
SP: That's right, so we really wanted to utilise that and to come here to Greece.
Manuel Lynch (ML): Spain was also overwhelmed with Coronavirus and Majorca was shut down, so moved to Greece, which at the time was much better and much lower cost wise and people could travel to Greece for close to nothing. People from the USA, Australia, South Africa and everyplace else, would come to Greece. We didn't realise that we would have Coronavirus shutdown in Greece as well. So, we moved there for costs and because it was easier to get to, it was better off altogether.
SP: We also do have a lot of students that like to come and train with us in person. Majorca, Spain is very much a destination place, but it did become cost prohibitive, number one and number two, the Coronavirus last year, in 2020 was very high. Greece, as Manuel mentioned, was much lower on the Coronavirus scale and it definitely is much more affordable. It's not nearly as expensive as other parts of Europe.
Having been in the industry for a few years myself, I know that chefs are usually loath to give out their secrets. It's a greedy, jealous industry. That’s not the case with you guys, you are completely open, you've been very encouraging, you try to help your students get set up in their own businesses. Don't you don't worry that people will steal your knowledge and just do something of their own with it?
SP: That’s a great question. It's not about stealing secrets; the recipes are what they are. We've trained students now for years and years and we've had people that have wanted to go out and start their own school, right now we are actually in talks and doing some piloting about franchising and having people becoming licensees and opening up in person training in other parts of the world. We have a mindset of abundance; we don't have a mindset of scarcity. The idea is that we want this information to get out there to people. These ingredients that we use, we didn't create, we didn't create pistachios, we didn’t create potatoes, we're putting them together in a new way, but we all have to eat. Our goal is for this information to get into more people's hands so that they can continue utilising it and they can eat better and be healthier. The more we can have people eating this way… We know they're going to live longer and they can be customers for longer, because we're going to be healthier.
Was you're coming into veganism more of a health oriented thing, or was it an ethical thing, or an environmental thing? What was the spark that made you decide, “I'm going to pursue this?”
SP: The three of us came with different perspectives and different backgrounds. Mine, originally, was as an ethical vegan, but then I learned about nutrition. I have a certificate in plant based nutrition, I learned about the health and I learned about how eating animal protein can create so many health problems. It's really become much broader. Of course, I always loved animals, I don't want to hurt animals, but at the end of the day, it's really about health. We want to talk about saving and helping the human animal. So many people don't realise that seven out of ten of the major diseases in the Western world and in first world countries are related to diet. That's diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, even cataracts and eye issues, are related to diet. We want to address that really goes back to health, health and health.
ML: The main reason is that it's just financially smart. The world's largest food company, Nestle is switching to being in plant based food. They have 325,000 employees around the world, they're big and they've decided to go ahead and embrace veganism. The Chinese government is mandating their citizens to eat plant based, so the plant based movement is going on around the world. We realised that from a cost standpoint, it's going to be lower and it's going to be simpler, easier and you can make all the same flavours. Whether we're old chefs, new chefs, giving away our secrets… The one way in which we're different from other chefs is we are doing plant based, so we are going to give everything, we are going to give it all away, because we want people to start using stuff to make it more trendy and possible. We don't have anything to hide from the chef. We have nothing to hide from any chef at all. We want to give to them as much as possible. That's just not altruism, that's financially motivated. The more people we have using vegan food, the more commonplace it's going to be. In the United States, it was only 4% a year ago; it's much, much higher now. In South Africa and Ukraine it's 25%, in Israel it's greater than 50% of the population that is vegan; Nestle has a division Israel. Let's learn from what people are doing that makes money, it has to be with making money.
SP: The vegan movement used to be more fringe; it was often seen, unfortunately, as being something that was more expensive, but now, companies like Nestle have embraced it and realised that it's not a fad, this is not paleo’, this is not eating gluten free, this is not eating some fringe diet. They realise that this is going to be here to stay for a very long time. Companies have invested a lot of money and so we're bringing it into the mainstream. Once they've done that, their large investments can make it much more affordable for everybody. It's the mindset that it's not fringe; years ago, Manuel and I were interviewed on a radio station and they were shocked that we didn't have tattoos and piercings… They thought we were going to show up with our paint guns and we were going to spray paint animal laboratories. That’s literally what they thought when we first showed up, but now there's much more acceptance and
ML: That approach to veganism is ineffective.
SP: It's polarizing.
ML: It's over. Our focus is not going after vegans; it’s going after the mainstream world. That’s what it’s about.
SP: We are very cognizant and we never want to alienate anyone. We've had students that still a traditional diet. We don't want to be one of those radical schools that shames people if they’re flexitarians. Years ago we created a rift, there were some hardcore vegans that really weren't happy with us, because we said we're going to work with mainstream restaurants and chefs and food companies, because we want to reach out and bridge that gap. Of course, we're a vegan school, but we realise that many restaurants are not going to start off being 100% vegan. There are people who want to eat a wide variety of foods. Sometimes it could be four people who are going out to dinner and only three are willing to eat vegan, then they're not going to go to a vegan restaurant, but they can go to a traditional restaurant that serves vegan food.
ML: Also, if you go to start a restaurant, you need a health permit and for a health permit, you need to have the right exhaust systems for protecting against cooking with animal fumes. We don't have that with vegan food. You need to have the refrigeration for cheese and eggs and again, you don't have that with vegan food, so those costs associated with caring for food and licencing aren’t there. When a health inspector comes here, they come in one time, they pick up what we're doing and then they don't come back. The big cost of starting a restaurant is getting all the licencing and we don't have any of that, none of that at all. The other issue is lifetime. We have products right now that have a lifetime, five years. You can't have an egg based product with a five year lifetime, you have 12 hours. Financially just makes more sense. Common sense and that's why the big food companies in the world are moving towards plant based stuff.
What would your advice be to professionals who are already in the industry and want to start looking into vegan cooking?
Jessica Mckenzie (JM): Regarding your question about chefs sharing their knowledge, you bring up a good point, because chefs are scared of sharing their recipes. I think when you're working in a kitchen, it's kind of like something that you put your stamp on; it's like, “This is my brand. This is my artwork.” I think the problem is people hold on to it, but as soon as you do something, it's the past. As a creative person, it's more your skill and what you can provide for somebody, rather than a recipe. Anyone can make a recipe; anyone can go online on Google and find a recipe. Nobody knows that your recipe is good. Most people are never going to try it. It’s about always being one step ahead of everybody.
When I first started working with Vegan Gastronomy, almost five years ago, I was very much, “Oh, I don't know how much I should share”, because you kind of hold these things really dear to your heart and Manuel said, “You have to fall out of love with yourself, because if you don't, you're not going to grow.” You have to let that go. I'm sure you've seen our YouTube channel; we create new recipes every week. Our skill is that we can just do it in a second. Nothing is keeping us from being creative and having the confidence, in the kitchen; that you can just whip something up. That's what's valuable, not the recipe that you’ve been working on for a year.
SP: I never thought about it that way, that once it’s done, it's almost makes you think that you’re yesterday's newspaper. It’s today's a newspaper and then tomorrow it lines your cat box.
JM: Now, with people's attention spans getting shorter and shorter with social media, you have to be like a chameleon, you have to constantly adjust yourself to what's going on.
ML: I'm one of the inventors of LED and I decided long ago that everyone is running to make LED lighting, but I've already done that, so I had to give it up. I walked away from a big industry, because everyone was getting involved with it. People from China were getting involved and I decided that I did the best job I could for LED lighting and I passed what I could on to them. As a vegan chef, not sharing your information is a horrible idea! You want to share with everyone; you want to share and learning from others is probably the best thing.
JM: Even as trained chefs, we are continually learning and training. We're always training. We don't just teach; we also go to teachers, we want to learn something new all the time.
SP: I've heard it said that after doctors, the industry the people that have the biggest egos are chefs.
JM: They didn't get paid very much see, so they've got to value something.
SP: We've interfaced with chefs all over the world. Chefs that have five minutes experience and then other people who have 30 years experience and people in Michelin star restaurants, mostly men, lots of women, but mostly men and I always have the most respect for the ones that say, “Look, I don't know, at all.” Usually the ones who have the most experience and have a list of accolades and restaurants and books and a following, are still humble enough to say, “I don't know at all” and they want to learn. They're willing to learn from us, but many chefs, because we're vegans, or we don't cook traditional food, have in the past pigeon holed us.
Jessica especially has made great inroads, because she has gone, as a female chef, into France, into the belly of the beast, if you will, of a male oriented French patisserie, consulting with the likes of Pierre Hermé and Ladurée on how to make vegan macaroons from a product she developed and now they purchase a lot of her products, because she showed them that she knows what she's talking about.
JM: With chefs, I always encourage them to focus on something and do it really well. Be a master. You don't have to be a master at all trades, but focus on something and specialise in that, like we specialise in vegan food. For myself, I would say egg replacement and Stephanie is very much into spices and teaching people. I know that something you really enjoyed is teaching people the history of where dishes come from and really travelling through food.
SP: If you try to master everything you're going to suck, you can't really go deep if you try to do everything. I'm from Las Vegas and we kind of invented the buffet and if you go to a buffet, you have a little bit of everything. You have a little Italian, a little Chinese or Japanese, a little Indian and it's all okay, but it's not great. Like if go and have street food somewhere in the world and they make one thing or two things, but it’s the most incredible food ever.
JM: Something that differentiates you from among everybody else.
SP: Jack of all trades, master of none...
What do you feel the role of a chef is in the global vegan movement? Do you think that there's a responsibility attached to it?
JM: I think the role of a chef is to serve others. Period. The problem I find is that a lot of people who are coming into vegan cuisine, or want to become a chef, want to make things that they like, they want to make what they want and it's not about what you want. A chef is in a service industry, you're in hospitality. It's about serving the customer, trying to find your market and serving that market.
What’s the most gratifying part of being a chef for you?
JM: For me, it's the creative process. It's the passion behind it and being able to share with other people. It's not necessarily replicating something, it's that something that you did inspired somebody else to be creative and really get that passion to get back into get into cooking. As a teacher, I suppose that's kind of like the ultimate,
SP: The buzz I get is when we see our students, recreating the recipes and sharing with friends or family. Something that they're able to eat that reminds them of something they had when they were a child. They're either tapping into a memory of something haven't eaten for a long time, or they're sharing with their family and friends. We've had a lot of students who have come and they're one vegan in their community and they feel kind of ostracised and when they can learn how to veganise their dishes and take them to dinner parties or to holidays…
ML: It makes me really happy when the world's largest macaroon producer buys hundreds of kilos from us all the time. From France from Switzerland, every time they open up a new division are ordering from us. That makes me feel good.
JM: We’ve kind of talked from a teacher's perspective, but from the big picture perspective, we want the biggest food companies using our products, because we want to have the biggest impact in the world to get more people to go into vegan cuisine and not have to compromise to be able to eat vegan and you don’t have to be vegan top eat vegan.
SP: We really want to penetrate that flexitarian market.
ML: So there's a large company called Nestle, the world's largest and they've developed a new type of vegan tuna. The first shipment is coming here for us to do a video. They want to open up the market for themselves in Japan and this is purely financial, they cost 1/5 of what it costs for tuna, it costs them nothing compared to tuna. There's a mystique as a chef that you want to use the best tuna for Japan, but now they want it to be the l most cost effective which tastes like tuna and acts like tuna, so they've asked us to do a demonstration video on what to do with the product. That makes you feel pretty good, when you can be out there developing things that the world's top companies are coming to
Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know about?
ML: The number one place for food in the world, for advanced vegan food and high nutrition food, is in Africa. It's called fonio. We teach about in our level one course. It’s a type of grain that doesn't require any water but it's the number one nutrition in the world. (Link to video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6toNHhHAss&ab_channel=VeganGastronomyCulinaryAcademy)
SP: When it comes proselytizing for veganism, when people become vegan, or they first get into it, be it through watching documentaries, or whatever and they ‘see behind the curtain’ and they get that aha moment, then they want to share it with everybody else... Those vegans are typically the ones who are the preachiest and the most polarising and I say that from experience, because I used to be one of those, but I know that when people start talking like that, normally the other person shuts down. They don't want to hear it and the vegan movement or plant based industry is seen as a cult. It's like closing a bank window, or a system shut down your computer.
That's something that we don't address, we don't have that at the school here at all.
We left that behind because, whatever people believe outside of our school is fine, we respected that, but we want to make sure that this was a safe space and just about sharing the information, the curriculum, not preaching about veganism, we really came at it from the dietary perspective. We all have to eat and people most people would rather eat tasty food versus gross food. Yeah. That's why we want to have food that looks nice and is not always Brown.
Traditional chefs oftentimes don't have a lot of respect for vegan chefs, because if you look at it as a race, traditional chefs have been cooking traditionally, for millennia. The vegan food scene is much newer, so they had a much bigger jump start on us. Traditional chefs are better. I'll say that again, traditional chefs are better. They are more experienced, they are more of them and we are playing catch up. We are absolutely we are in our infancy. We're doing a great job. We're making headway, but we're not going to be respected unless we put something out that's as good if not better than what traditional chefs are creating. The lion's share of people don't care; they want it to be low cost and tasty.
It's all well and good that people want to eat ethically, but at the end of the day, taste and price are the two most important things that people care about. We know that that's going to get the most people to try this type of food. Price also goes to accessibility, when the prices go down, we can get into vending machines and onto food trucks and into food carts, we can go all around the world and not only at be at these fancy, ‘shishi’ little speciality restaurants in a little corner. Years ago the only way I could find a restaurant somewhere would be happy to use Happy Cow. Now you can go on TripAdvisor and there are vegan and vegetarian options. Now I don't have to go to vegan restaurants anymore. I can go to traditional restaurants and still find these plant based options and they know how to cook for people who choose to eat vegan. You don't have to go to a special place.
Would you say that, for a vegan chef, a degree of flexibility is required in terms of what the chef himself or herself eats? Say you're trying to veganise a steak, or a make a vegan steak; you'd have to know what a steak tastes like right?
SP: That's a great question. That's a whole that's probably another whole hours’ worth of talk. When I'm reverse engineering cheese's I absolutely do try cheese. It's very hard for me to go back to eating meat. I reverse engineer meat analogues from memory, but I think every chef needs to make that decision for him or herself. I do eat traditional cow cheese, goat cheese and traditional ice-cream, because I want to be able to reverse engineer it and taste it more recently in my brain versus for a steak, it's been 35 years. I can smell it and a lot of flavour is smell and you can you can smell a steak without eating it, but it's I think it's a great question. I have friends who own vegan restaurants that still eat everything. To each his own. You don't need to specify that that's about being a great vegan chef. I think that to be good anything in life, you need to be more open. Whether you're a gardener, a car salesman, or a window washer, you need to be more open. We're in hospitality, which is about creating the experience. If you keep the mission at the forefront of your mind, “How are you going to best serve your customers? What's going help you do your job the best way?”
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