Wednesday, April 15, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie Edition with Doron Petersan of Sticky Fingers Bakery...

A longtime animal advocate and lifelong food enthusiast, Doron Petersan has successfully combined these twin passions in her ahead-of-its-time bakery and café, Sticky Fingers Bakery, in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1999. At a time when people were still trying to figure out exactly how to pronounce the word, Doron and her team were slinging decadent vegan treats with a disarming nostalgic aesthetic that blew people’s minds and had them lining up for more. A pioneer in the practice idea of changing hearts and minds with great vegan food as the vehicle, Doron has gone on to win on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars twice, win Washington City Paper’s “Best Bakery” award for ten years (including 2015), write cookbooks (the paperback version with added recipes is coming out in the fall), and expand her restaurant’s offerings from her famous Little Devils and whoopie pies to delicious savory café food as well, helping to expand the public perception of veganism as a lifestyle that embraces abundance and joy without sacrifice.  Oh, and Sticky Fingers has a chain of bakeries in Seoul, South Korea, too.  Is total global domination next?

With her new restaurant, Fare Well,
406 H St. NE, opening in the summer (sign up for the newsletter and to get an inside scoop on all the exciting goings-on at, Doron is certainly poised for it. Fare Well’s menu is going to be inspired by Mediterranean comfort foods made vegan with an emphasis on local ingredients and locally grown produce. Her famous treats will be there as well, of course. Living in D.C. with her husband, son and adopted animals, Doron is a trailblazing entrepreneur who turned her love for animals and her passion for food into a successful model for conscientious movers and shakers. For this reason and more, Doron Petersan is a Vegan Foodie we love.

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?

One day after work, I stopped at a deli for a fresh turkey breast sandwich with mustard and Swiss on rye.  Earlier that day I had witnessed my first surgery as a vet-tech.  I realized the musculature of the little terrier had looked strangely similar to the turkey sandwich I was eating.  How could I choose to help one but eat another?  A vegetarian was born, albeit mad and angry about all of the foods that I wouldn’t be enjoying anymore. 

I’ve always been an eater. I would try anything once, and then again to make sure I either liked it, or didn’t.  And, like most kids, I wanted all things sweet, which were few and far between. My mom was the meal-maker in our home and being Sicilian, she focused on whole and healthy foods.  Most people think of cheesy-pastas and cured meats like sausage and prosciutto when they hear ‘Italian’.  Maybe around holidays and parties, sure.  But the daily fare was very simple, basic, and heavy on the veggies.   Lentils and rice, pasta and vegetables, roasted meats and fresh bread.  Lots of fresh fruit and nuts were considered ‘dessert’, but special occasions warranted the local bakeries’ cookie platter, or the coveted Carvel Ice Cream cake.  I was in high school before I ever tasted the horrible goodness that was a Ring-Ding, Devil Dog, or Twinkie.

Every holiday we watched and waited as my Grandmother, Aunts, Mom, and friends cooked, baked, sautéed, and sliced.  It seemed as if the cooking would never end, and I waited impatiently.  We would devour and enjoy, and do it again as there were leftovers for days afterwards.  I can still taste the memories of some of those dishes, like baked macaroni, my Grandmother’s meatballs, arancini, and spiedini.   Combined with the daily meals that were simple yet delicious and healthful as well, born was my love for food and the understanding that food is to nourish, to enjoy, and to celebrate. 

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?

One year, one of my aunts made me this porcini pasta dish that blew my mind; fresh porcinis (that melted in your mouth) tossed with hand made, fresh fettuccini.  That was for my 32nd birthday.  While I love making foods I remember as a kid, I’m constantly learning and tasting new favorites.  Often these new dishes or flavor combos make it into the star-line up and into a serving bowl at the table. Customs are about remembering and celebrating, right?  The foods help to tell the story of where we’ve been and where we are now. It’s not about the pork roast, or the roast turkey, or the tur-duck-en.  Finding dishes with staying power, void of animal ingredients is the easy part. Doing so with out insulting the elders can be more than difficult.  Think of traditions as journeys we continue to build upon.

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

If I took all of the vegan favorites I’ve ever had and made a meal, it would look like this; Fried avocado tacos from Austin, the gnocchi pesto from my wedding; my Grandfather’s ‘veggie hash’, Korean pine-nut porridge, my mom’s spinach and rice stuffing, Roman artichokes, Kamber’s chocolate mint ice cream, and anything my Aunt Lynn makes for me.

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’m always looking for an excuse to make pasta, like gnocchi or ravioli.  How about a cashew crème sauce with basil, white wine, garlic cooked on low until soft, a pinch of salt and lemon.  Then, hot cookies right out of the oven topped with coconut-based vanilla bean ice cream, candied pistachios with cinnamon and sugar, and a dollop of thick, dark, luscious melted chocolate.  I’d make it for Father who passed two short years ago.  Whenever we would get together he would suggest ‘a nice dinner’.  I can imagine him taking a bite, and simply saying ‘nice’.  

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

Using too many ingredients and too many flavors.  I try to stick with three or four flavors in most dishes.  Focus on complementing and separating rather than trying to pack everything into one dish.  Some of the most delicious are the most simplistic, like tomatoes sautéed with garlic, onion, and red pepper.  What about white beans stewed with onions, basil, and fennel seed.  Or, mushrooms with white wine, garlic, and mustard seeds.  Tofu baked with miso, tahini, and topped with fresh squeezed lemon.

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

Everything ‘nuts’: almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, you name it.  They taste great in everything; candy, cookies, breads, pudding, sauces and cheeses.  Try to name another that is so versatile!

I’m reminded of a meeting, where I presented our baking book ‘Sweet’ for review, hoping for a write-up in their well-known food-publication.  The editor said "While I love the recipes, we don’t like to use the word ‘vegan’ in our publication." Exit interview. Fast-forward four years and suddenly vegan is a-ok.  Most notably, a recent recipe they posted for vegan nut-cheeses. Oh, sacred cheese, flavors so complex and textures divine.  ‘But, how could you give up cheese’ was the question so many asked.  How?  Just check out the WORLD'S leading food publication, now listing vegan cheese recipes in print and online.  Go figure.  Ahead of our time, I guess. 

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

New York Jewish Italian Deli (no, really)

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

My husband, for sure.  He’s the biggest supporter of the business and the mission, and has been right by my side for the entire ride. From the early days of pure ignorance and blind faith, to the days of long hours, late nights, and work-filled weekends, he’s wiped the tears and helped mop the floors. Creating any business is hard work.  Trying to create and run a business based on ethics and not (only) the bottom line is like riding roller coaster made of barbed wire (at times). Like you and most folks who are reading, Peter and I both started off as activists.  We interned at PETA in 1995, and soon after our first jobs were in the animal non-profit sector; we wanted to make a difference.  Peter went to law school to become an attorney, working to change the way we regard, treat, and view animals. Me, I made cookies without eggs or dairy, letting folks taste the fact that animal-ingredients were not necessary to make food taste good.  Two slightly different paths; same goal.   Peter reminds me that success is measured in many ways.  

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

I’m on the board of directors for Pinups for Pitbulls, and I am giddy about the work they/we do.  Through direct outreach at events and the yearly Pin-Up Calendar, we educate the public on the discrimination, abuse, and homeless-issues for all dogs. Most effected by all three mentioned are pit-bull type breeds. Breed-specific legislation and Breed Discriminatory Laws threaten our family’s beloved companion animals. Our goal is to put an end to the breed-bashing and media-exploitation, and restore their reputation as the nanny-dog, war hero and all around silly, face licking, wiggle butt pibbles that they are! After working in animal shelters I saw first-hand the damage done to these loving pups.  Without going into gory details, I’m haunted by the memories. Yet, grateful for the experience. In witnessing the suffering I discovered my mission: to make great food for everyone to enjoy without using animal-based ingredients.

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

…About making choices every day that is better for you, the animals, and the environment. 

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