Wednesday, September 16, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie Edition with Chef Skye-Michael Conroy

 

I’m so excited to be spotlighting Chef Skye-Michael Conroy, a.k.a., The Gentle Chef, as our featured Vegan Foodie today. I first became aware of Skye a couple of years ago when I noticed all these people raving
about how his fantastic dairy-free cheese recipes had brought something that they’d once enjoyed back into their lives without any compromising of their ethics or their taste buds. Last year, I finally bought his Non-Dairy Evolution Cookbook and made the French Brie and Chévre cheeses for an event and watched in amazement (and amusement) as one of my friends slowly but surely claimed the cheeses for her own by forming a protective bubble around them with her arms as she sat at the dining room table. (She did eventually – and grudgingly – allow others to also partake.) Another time, I made the brie for a friend who was a new vegan at the time, raised by parents from Italy. She’d been lamenting to me about the lack of quality vegan cheeses: when I brought her the brie, her brain pretty much exploded over how good it was and declared that cheese to be the best brie she’d ever had, dairy or non-dairy. She ordered the cookbook immediately and I knew that this woman, whose heart was in the right place but was at a place where she desperately missed cheese, was not at risk of returning to dairy. Today she is whipping up Non-Dairy Evolutionary recipes like a fiend and has no interest in returning to animal products.

I see Chef Skye as filling a vital role in the vegan world by providing recipes that satisfy the longing for familiar comfort foods as well as teaching impressive but accessible techniques for home cooks and experienced foodies interested in bumping up their cooking chops a few notches with his excellent recipes. Skye knows that food is emotional for us and many of us have deep connections to the foods we were raised on, even if we have evolved past them as consumers. Food shouldn’t be a compromise, though, and what he and his recipes show us again and again is that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds: cruelty-free food that is 100% delicious without any concessions. The thing is, too, that he really is a wizard, not only in the non-dairy realm but also in the vegan meats realm. Now Chef Skye has a new cookbook, Seitan and Beyond, that is taking his painstakingly accurate but still accessible approach to plant-based cheeses and applying them to animal-free proteins with uncanny results. (By the way, you can take many of his recipes for a test drive before you invest in a cookbook here.) Is this food for everyone? No. If replicating meats or dairy makes you feel squeamish, it’s not for you. But for those who like being able to enjoy old favorites again without the cruelty, Chef Skye’s recipes might be right up your alley. (By the way, do check out his popular Facebook page where you can see how his devotees are taking his recipes to new heights.) For his kind heart, his creativity, his perfectionist commitment to details and his dedication to elevating the craft of vegan cuisine to a whole new level, Chef Skye-Michael Conroy is a Vegan Foodie to know. (By the way, I apologize for the weird spacing in this -- it appears to be a Blogspot issue and not something I can control.)

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?
 


Cooking has been a part of my life since late childhood. I love good food and I love the art of preparing good food. Although I’ve had many years of experience with traditional cooking and some vegetarian cuisine, transitioning to a strict plant-based diet made me feel like a complete novice. I literally had no idea how to plan and prepare a nutritionally complete and well-balanced diet without at least including some dairy and eggs. I was completely unfamiliar with many of the “exotic” plant-based ingredients and foods. So like everyone else, I had to start from the basics and re-teach myself to cook. To round out my training I also enrolled in a cooking school offering a professional, plant-based culinary certification program led by world-renowned plant-based chef educator Chad Sarno.

Chef Chad Sarno, my culinary instructor at Rouxbe; celebrity Chef Tal Ronnen; and Chef Tanya Petrovna founder of Native Foods were my primary role models when I first began exploring vegan cuisine. Since I’ve only been cooking strictly plant-based for five years, I still consider myself a new vegan chef. I also consider myself a student as well as a teacher, and my peers and my readers continue to teach me many new things.


2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?


Like most people of my generation (I grew up in the '60s/'70s), meat and other animal foods were the focal points of pretty much every meal. We ate little in the way of fresh vegetables, except for the nightly iceberg lettuce dinner salad with slivered carrot and a few sliced radishes. I had a difficult time eating meat when I was young - it was basically forced on me, and meat became an acquired taste as I got older. Holiday meals were important in our family but my diet today and family food traditions bear very little resemblance to my diet and family food traditions while growing up.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!


On a trip to New York City a few years ago, I had the privilege to dine at Candle 79. While I don’t recall the specifics of the meal itself, the ambiance, service and quality of the cuisine was certainly worthy of 4 stars. I would have to say that was my best vegan meal ever - especially since I didn’t have to cook! If I ever open a restaurant, I would like it to follow that same level of culinary excellence and professionalism. For casual dining, I’ve never been disappointed by the Native Foods restaurant chain.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?


I would love to cook for Auguste Escoffier, the legendary figure among omni chefs and gourmets and one of the most important leaders in the development of modern French cuisine. I think he would be impressed with the meat, egg and dairy analogues I create.


5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?


The two primary mistakes in any form of cooking are: 1) Not reading the cookbook and the recipes all the way through before cooking. How to avoid this? Read the cookbook! There’s a wealth of information in most cookbooks regarding ingredients and techniques that is not contained within the recipes themselves. 2) Poor “mise en place”. Mise en Place (pronounced meez-ahn-plahs) is a French cooking term literally translated as “put in place”. Mise en place refers to gathering all ingredients and tools and then measuring all ingredients before cooking begins. It’s an important culinary technique and one of the most often neglected. Many home cooks scramble for supplies and tools and measure ingredients while cooking. This is a bad habit that often leads to mistakes and failures.

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?


I continue to be excited by the meat analogues I can create with vital wheat gluten and by combining vital wheat gluten with tofu. I’m also excited about glucomannan, also known as konjac root powder, and its use in preparing seafood analogues. Vegan lactic acid is another favorite ingredient for duplicating a tangy lactic dairy flavor in non-dairy foods.

7. What are your top three cuisines from around the world?



Indian, Mexican and Thai cuisines are my three favorites due to their generous use of exotic herbs and spices to create layers of interesting and unique flavors.

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.



Earthlings” was undoubtedly the most influential documentary. The film was powerful and moving (although heartbreaking to watch) and I knew after viewing it, that if there was to be any change at all in how animals are treated, I was going to have to be part of that change. The members of my cooking group on Facebook, and my personal vegan friends, inspire me and keep me motivated on my path.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?



Ending the suffering of factory farmed animals will always be the issue nearest and dearest to my heart. That’s what my work is all about. Cooking is my activism and targets the individual by teaching how to change lifelong dietary habits through the replacement of animal products with those derived from plants. My goal is to make this dietary transition easier, enjoyable and sustainable for anyone willing to make the change.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"



…doing the best I can to cause the least amount of harm to any living being - whether sentient or not. It’s not about being “pure”. It’s about intent. This philosophy is an intrinsic part of my spiritual beliefs.
 


9 comments:

  1. Thank you both for all your incredible work and inspiration!

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  2. Wonderful article Marla Rose, thank you! And also Thank You to Chef Skye for all the hard work he's put in, to create the most delicious vegan foods available!

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  3. Chef Skye continues to inspire the vegan home cook, even after decades of cooking. the flavours in all 3 cookbooks are so perfectly balanced that I keep learning as the chef continues to share his expertise with us.

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  4. Great interview, Marla and Skye. There are so many ways we can have a positive impact on the future of all animals, no matter the amount of legs (2, 4, 8, etc), and cooking is one of the keys for those of us who are human animals. Thanks Chef Skye for the hard and dedicated and unrelenting work, and thanks Marla for bringing work such as this to light (as well as your own work!)

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  5. Oh my stars number 5. SO, SO true!

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  6. Thank you Marla for a great interview, and thank you Skye for blazing the trail in discovering and creating new vegan dishes for us to enjoy.

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  8. Excellent interview with an excellent Chef! Love Chef Skye for his gentle, caring heart and his absolutely amazing creations!

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  9. I can't believe Chef Skye has only been doing this six years!!! Incredible.

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