Roberto Martin never set out to be a vegetarian, much less a vegan, chef. But this adventurous omnivore changed his perspective when talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia de Ross hired him as their personal chef.
"I took it as a challenge," says Martin, 39. "When I worked as a personal chef for other celebrities, I had constraints such as the wife doesn't eat fish or the husband doesn't like onions. I figured I'd do what I do best, which is cook my regular dishes, but just not use animal products."
Martin figured out a way to make dishes like fried chicken without meat, eggs or dairy taste so delicious that even his employers' more carnivorous friends enjoyed them. "They felt that it was very different from what they were getting from devout vegan cooks because I was just making regular food vegan instead of making vegan food," Martin says. DeGeneres was so appreciative that she featured him on her show, and then she told him "You've got to make a book."
That book, Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, was just published, and it remains on several bestseller lists. SecondAct caught up with Martin, who lives with his wife and their son in Los Angeles.
SA: What is the biggest misconception about vegan cuisine?
RM: The biggest misconception is that it's not that tasty. People are not going to go vegan if they have to give up flavor or texture. Most of the dishes in my book are common, but they just so happen not to use animal products. The red beans and rice and the shepherd's pie recipes look, smell and taste like the real deal.
SA: Who is this book for?
RM: When you go vegan, whether it's because of the animals or the environment or your health or all three, the end result is what you're eating can be pretty limited. That might be okay with you, but your friends might not dig it. Quinoa and spinach salad is not going to win them over, but these dishes are.
SA: A lot of people are doing Meatless Mondays. What's your advice to people who would like to eat less meat?RM: The whole idea is baby steps. Try one dish a week. If it's a big hit, throw it in the rotation, and then do another dish on Monday so then Monday is meatless, but Thursday is red beans and rice. What I love hearing is "My husband is a card-carrying carnivore, but I made him this dish from your book and he loved it so much he took leftovers to work." When I hear that a dish is going to become someone's staple, that's just the coolest thing.
SA: What's the most important ingredient for a vegan pantry?
RM: The first thing you need is egg replacer. It's sold in a huge container so you make that one purchase, and you're good for a while. You use that as much as you use baking powder.
SA: Any specific tools you recommend?
RM: Cheeseless pizza is rad if you've got great crust and awesome sauce, but most home-cooked crusts are all floppy and need cheese and sausage to make them tasty. The best way to get a crispy crust in a home oven is to use a pizza screen. It makes a big difference.
SA: Your book emphasizes using proper technique, especially knife skills.
RM: When I had friends and family members who were not good chefs, test my recipes, I learned that none of them had sharp knives. Chopping is a real chore if you use a dull knife. Take your cheap knives to a professional and get them sharpened. Then, cutting onions is not such a chore.
SA: Your book also really details tofu preparation.
RM: Before I began cooking vegan, my tofu never tasted as good as it did at the Indian restaurants. You really need to squeeze the hell out of it. Once you do that, it takes on a meatier consistency.
SA: Are you completely vegan?
RM: I'm about 95 percent vegan. There's not just one (non-vegan) thing I'll eat, but I taste stuff. I'll go to someone's house, and they'll know that my wife and I don't eat meat, but I don't sweat it if they've added chicken stock to the soup. At home, we eat vegan, but if you're at someone's house or at a restaurant, it might or might not be vegan.
SA: I understand your mom was a big influence on your cooking.
RM: As the youngest of 15 kids, I saw that my mom spent a lot of time cooking, and I learned I was afforded more time with her if I was in the kitchen. I followed her around. My dad was a businessman, and when we went out to dinner when he was entertaining, my mom and I would order the wackiest thing on the menu and then try to replicate it at home.
SA: How did your interest in food translate to a culinary career?
RM: I majored in political science, but I worked as a waiter at chain restaurants. I decided that I was a really good waiter so I got a job at a better restaurant. What happened was I fell in love with the food there (at Steps on the Court in downtown Los Angeles). When I graduated, I asked if I could work in the kitchen a couple of days a week. I made nothing compared to when I was a waiter, but I loved it so I asked the executive chef where I should go to culinary school, and he said the Culinary Institute of America. I sold everything I had, took out some terrible student loans and never looked back.
SA: Why did you become a personal chef?
RM: I first took a job as a personal chef because I needed the money. What I discovered is that this was what I was supposed to be doing, working in a big house, feeding a family. I'm kind of reliving my childhood all over again, and being a personal chef really bridges my love of being of service and my love of cooking. As a personal chef, I'm a dishwasher, housekeeper, waiter and chef.
SA: Are Ellen and Portia just as great as we imagine them?
RM: They're a lot of fun. No slight to my former employers, but the one thing I love about Ellen and Portia is that they're so normal. They're not surrounded by handlers, and unlike when I've been around other celebrities, I don't have to constantly think really hard about what I say. They get my sense of humor.
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