Wednesday, September 3, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Jason Wyrick

Jason Wyrick
owes his life to veganism and he is paying it back. As someone who was probably well on his way to an early death, Jason discovered veganism in 2001, which helped him lose more than 100 pounds as well as reverse his diabetes. Jason developed some impressive culinary chops along the way, learning how to cook the food he was now eating, even eventually teaching the first vegan class at the famous cooking and hospitality school Le Cordon Bleu and co-authoring a best-selling book with Dr. Neal Barnard. Today, Jason puts up instructive videos, shares recipes, offers prepared meals, organizes vegan vacations, teaches classes and much more with his Vegan Taste partner, Madelyn Pryor. As someone who came to veganism through the door of health, I think Jason is an excellent example of a person who is creating a lot of positive change in the world through his first decision to take care of himself, and with his dietary practices now also firmly rooted in ethical convictions, he is using his talents to help build a better world. After struggling with his weight and rapidly declining health as a young man, Jason is making great inroads with people who are in desperate need of dietary changes but don’t want to sacrifice enjoyment and familiar comfort foods.

With his emphasis on simply great food bursting with flavor, it is clear that Jason’s approach is a winning one. 

Jason’s most recent cookbook, “Vegan Tacos: Authentic and Inspired Recipes for Mexico’s Favorite Street Food”, is a beautiful and colorful new release from Vegan Heritage Press. Full of gorgeous photography, lots of inventive recipes and an obvious passion for the fresh, bold, earthy flavors of Mexican cuisine, I can already tell that this is going to be one of those essential cookbooks in my kitchen. For now, though, I am just really glad to have Jason Wyrick in the hot seat for my Ten Questions feature. I am impressed by his enthusiasm for great food (vegan cuisine should never be a sacrifice) and the approachable, friendly way he encourages those who are just beginning this journey.  Thank you, Jason!

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?

That’s an interesting story! I always had this knack for knowing what food should taste like just by looking at a picture of it, but I barely cooked anything as a kid (unless you count using a microwave) and my parents never taught me how to cook. It wasn’t until my senior year in college at TCU when I had my first great meal. It was at an Egyptian restaurant called King Tut’s and I was instantly hooked. Being a college student, though, meant I was pretty poor. I knew if I wanted to eat like that, the only way to do it was to learn how to cook. It only took a couple weeks before I started to get pretty good at it, so cooking became a hobby for me at that point. Ironically, I went vegetarian not long after that, so most of my experience cooking has been as a vegetarian or vegan.

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?

Not that great, to be honest. My dad worked a lot and my mom had three boys to take care of, and she also worked, so it was either one of seven different chicken dishes or Taco Bell, Burger King, Pizza Hut, etc. On occasion, we’d get something special like chili or biscuits and gravy or enchiladas. Those enchiladas were my absolute favorite meal. Chile sauce, corn tortillas, lots of cheese, black olives. They were way better than anything I got when we would go out for Mexican food. I still make enchiladas today as a special treat, but now they’re vegan and I make a pretty wide variety of them. Enchiladas with seared mushrooms in guajillo garlic sauce, ones with pintos borrachos with a poblano tomatillo sauce, dessert ones made with ancho-guajillo-agave sauce. Now I’m getting hungry for enchiladas.

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

Wow, that’s a hard question, but since I just mentioned enchiladas, I’ll tell you about one of the best meals I ever served. I was a guest instructor in the Le Cordon Bleu program at Scottsdale Culinary Institute and I had to create a vegan meal for the students to serve in their public restaurant. This was a huge deal because it was the first time a vegan instructor was teaching anywhere in the Le Cordon Bleu program and it was the first time a vegan instructor was teaching at SCI. I created these enchiladas that were in a fire roasted tomato-guajillo chile sauce. The filling was smoked oyster mushrooms and grilled shallots and the enchiladas were topped with pine nuts and crispy sage. The sides were beer-braised roasted garlic beans and smoked paprika rice with black sesame seeds. For dessert, I made cannoli with ancho chile flavored cream cheese, agave drizzle, toasted pine nuts, and cactus fruit. This was several years ago, well before vegan cannoli had become the rage. It was served with a nice crisp gruener veltliner to accentuate the chile flavor of the enchiladas. Just writing about that dinner makes me long to revisit that day. Suffice it to say, that dinner outsold any other dinner that restaurant had ever served.

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

So many people and different meals come to mind. There are plenty of influential people who could use a good vegan meal put in front of them to motivate them to spread a compassionate word to the masses, but when it comes down to it, I’d love to sit down with George Martin, talk gaming and writing, and share some good tequila anejo and a set of cactus tacos, Yucatecan barbacoa tacos, grilled chayote, rice and beans. Plus, how great would it be if the writer most known for brutally killing off characters went vegan and helped spread a message of kindness, health, and compassion? Pretty great, I say.

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

The biggest mistake I see people make is simply being afraid of messing up a meal. Fear really is the mind killer and once people become afraid of making their meals, it makes it that much harder to be vegan. It’s just food. If you’re not serving it professionally, don’t worry about it if it’s not perfect. It’s not worth trying to get a perfect end product if doing so is going to cause unrelenting stress. Just have fun!

From a technique standpoint, not getting the timing right on a recipe is the biggest misstep I see. Not all the ingredients have the same cook times and if you don’t pay attention to when a particular ingredient will be done, the dish usually ends up being bland and homogenous. Just be aware of which ingredients cook faster than others and try to add them to the pan accordingly. For example, it might take 8 minutes to caramelize an onion whereas garlic can be done in one to two minutes. If you add them both at the same time, you’ll end up with bitter garlic.

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

Chiles, but that’s not a momentary thing. That’s constant. I’m always looking for new ones to try, new ways to prepare them, and new ones to grow in my backyard. If I hear about a new Mexican ingredient, I will drive hours to hunt it down. Those may be fresh hoja santa leaves, an organic achiote paste, sour Seville oranges, a high-end mezcal, anything like that. I also just tried my hand at brewing and I currently have an Irish stout bottled and aging. It was a fascinating process and I can’t wait to try my hand at some different ales and beers.

7. You are restricted to one ethnic cuisine for the rest of your life. What would you like it to be?

Ha, that’s easy. Mexican. I mean, I love Thai, Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Italian, but Mexican beats them every time.

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

The odd thing is, I didn’t really have other vegans to influence me. I went vegan so long ago (13 years), there weren’t a lot of other vegans around to offer help. Sure, there were vegans around, but there wasn’t an availability of vegan mentors at the time. Because of that, I was left on my own to develop my own ideas about what being vegan and what vegan cuisine should be. I just assumed that making food that was vegan was not the end goal, but was rather the starting point of a meal. I thought a vegan dish should be celebrated as being great because the food was actually great. Once I started teaching classes and talking about food in that way, I was quickly put into the role of being an influencer and mentor. 

Now that I’m writing about those first few years of being vegan, I did have one book that influenced me and that was “The Monastery Cookbook”. It is long out of print, but its spiral-bound pages were where I learned how to make sauces, how to make seitan, what tempeh was, how to work with tofu, etc. It was a great primer for transitioning over to a vegan diet. Also, Alex Bury helped get my name out to the vegan community when I first started my career as a chef, for which I will be ever grateful.

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

I used to be seriously overweight and diabetic in my twenties. A far cry from the high school basketball athlete I used to be. I was on my way to having a heart attack and going blind before I was 40. Going vegan not only saved my life, it vastly improved the quality of it. Now I’m 41 and in better shape than even my younger brothers. Getting there, though, was not an easy road. I resented having to give up cheese and I struggled hard with that. It wasn’t just the food, it was having to make a drastic lifestyle change.

The problem was, there were a little of people telling me I had to go from being the guy that loved having all-you-can-eat enchiladas and getting a different cheese at Whole Foods every week just to try it to the guy that was no oil, no fat, nothing processed, low-salt, etc., etc. right away. There was, and still is, a message out there (and you know the people fostering that message), that if you don’t eat that way, you’re doing something worthy of contempt. Hearing that message actually made it harder for me to stick with being vegan, let alone get to a place where I was eating a super healthy diet. I felt like a horrible person every time I looked at something that had oil, or salt, or even an avocado.

If you are on the path to going vegan or on the path to becoming a super healthy vegan, but you’re not there yet, know that I am proud of you and that you are doing the right thing. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad because you are not the pinnacle of perfection. Get there when you can and in the meantime, I’ll be cheering you along the way.

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

…the art of beautiful food.


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