Brian Patton is author of The Sexy Vegan Cookbook and is executive chef for Vegin' Out, a vegan food delivery service in Los Angeles. As the quintessential “regular dude” vegan chef, he started posting instructional cooking videos on YouTube as his witty, ukulele-playing alter-ego "The Sexy Vegan" and quickly gained a large following. Visit him online at thesexyvegan.com.
How did you come to write your book?
I was just a guy in his little apartment, with a crappy camera and limited editing skills. I gained somewhat of a following by making silly cooking videos and posting them to YouTube, my sexyvegan.com website, and various other social media outlets. Then one day I got an email from someone claiming to be a book publisher asking me if I wanted to write a cookbook. After I verified that this was indeed a real person from a real publisher, and not one of my idiot friends messing with me (which wouldn’t have been the first time), I agreed to let them pay me to write a cookbook—and here I am!
What was the defining moment that helped you decide to be a vegan?
For me, there was no one moment. I switched to a vegan diet as an experimental kickstart in hopes of losing weight. I was around 260 pounds, and I felt terrible all the time. And since I was the only meat eater working for a vegan company (Vegin’ Out, L.A.’s premier vegan meal delivery service, where I’m now executive chef), I thought I’d give it a try for a month. I started to feel better and lost a few pounds, so I went another month, and another month. Ten months later, I had lost 60 pounds and felt better than I had in my entire life. But just because I had adopted a vegan diet didn’t mean I was a full-on, level 10 vegan. I had been gradually becoming conscious about the other aspects, like not buying leather belts or wool socks. And let me tell you, my silk underwear collection took a big hit that first year. Then one day, I instinctively trapped an interloping spider with a cup and a piece of cardboard instead of stomping on it. My roommate walked into the room while I was escorting it outside and said, “Dude, what are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know, but I guess I don’t kill spiders anymore either.” My perspective had shifted. In that moment, I saw a being just trying to go about its day, like we all do. I thought, “We earthlings don’t really know what we are in the grand scheme of things—maybe we’re just a lucky spider that hasn’t gotten stepped on yet.” I finally saw what it meant to “do no harm.” And I think that was the moment when I reached the top of the vegan pyramid. My “spider moment.”
What advice do you have for people looking to transition to a healthier way of eating?
The most important step is to take an interest in your food. We only need to do two things to stay alive: breathe and eat—and one of those things takes care of itself! It’s strange how often we completely neglect the ONE other thing that is tied for first place in the “keeping us alive” category. I know, there’s no time, right? Isn’t there? Do you really need to see the ENTIRE 4 hour results show of whatever talent competition you’re invested in? Do you really need to see Snooki fall down drunk AGAIN?? Ok, well I do like seeing that, but what I’m saying is, with a couple tweaks to your daily routine, you can give yourself plenty of time to prepare fresh homemade meals. That’s where your transition must begin.
What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about being vegan?
In Los Angeles we have an exponentially expanding number of vegan eateries, so people are pretty hip to the fact that vegan food can be diverse, creative and delicious. But when I go home to visit the family in Northeastern Pennsylvania and someone hands me a plate full of grass and sticks from outside (hardy-har-har, Dad), I can see a major misconception: vegan food lacks variety. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. Go look in your average grocery store. How many types of meat can you buy? Chicken, turkey, beef, pork and a few varieties of seafood. What’s that? Like five different things? Now go to the produce section. How many different fruits and vegetables do you see? Thirty? Forty? Fifty? How many different beans? How many different grains? I’ve never actually counted, but that sure looks like variety to me.
What are some good recommendations of dishes to make for non-vegan friends?
If you want to help inspire a permanent change in someone else, it will not happen overnight. You may have the best veggie burger recipe on the planet, but a meat eater will eat it and say, “This is nice, but it’s not meat.” You’ve got to ease them in. Don’t try to directly replace meat right off the bat. It will backfire. Meat is tough to mimic. You’ve got to pick something that still closely resembles its non-vegan counterpart. The Lasagna Fauxlognese recipe from my book is a perfect example. You’ve got to appeal to all senses. First, it looks and smells just like lasagna. Second, they take a bite, and the textures of the cashew ricotta and the tofu fauxlognese sauce are so reminiscent of the non-vegan versions that they won’t even register a difference. Finally, their taste buds kick in, and guess what? They taste a meaty, cheesy lasagna! That is partly because it actually does taste like a meaty cheesy lasagna, but also because you have attacked all of their senses. That is the key.
What sets this book apart from the other vegan cookbooks out there?
I think of The Sexy Vegan Cookbook: Extraordinary Food from an Ordinary Dude as the “fun uncle” of vegan cookbooks. Many of the other books are like your parents—serious and preachy. They want to make sure that you’re doing the right thing all the time, which is great. Just as we need parents, we need those books. But isn’t it fun when whacky Uncle Glenn stops by and gives us something our parents don’t want us to have? That’s my book. I’m not saying that the dishes are unhealthy. They’re just fun. Fun to make, fun to eat, the dish names are fun to say, and the intros are fun to read. You’ll be learning a lot without feeling like you’re in school. Also setting this book apart are the QR codes contained within. Since The Sexy Vegan came to be through cooking videos, I felt there had to be a video element to the book. Scattered throughout the recipes are these bar code type things that you can scan with a smart phone or tablet. You are then taken directly to a video demonstration of a recipe. What's even better is that I can have those videos link to new recipe videos whenever I want. So this book will actually have recipes added to it after you buy it! What a world, huh?
Are you a classically trained chef?
I am not. But I do like to wear those funny hats sometimes, just for kicks. When I half-decided that I wanted to try cooking for a living, I did check out a few culinary programs. The idea of having to pay or, to be precise, of my parents having to pay for even more education on top of my, at that time, unused college degree was not an attractive one, especially since I didn’t know whether or not I was actually going to like the work. Sure, I liked cooking at home, but I didn’t have to slice 40 lbs of onions in one shot when I was making fajitas for one. So I thought that trying out the work first was more sensible. I go into this story in detail in the book, but basically I got a job at a little cafe/catering company and did my schooling on the job.
Is it hard to be vegan at big family holidays, weddings, etc.? How do you handle it?
When it comes to most family events, weddings, or dinner parties with friends, I am usually the lone vegan. There may be a few vegetarians here or there, and my fiancé is working her way toward being vegan, but my family and most of my friends are meat eaters. The solution for these situations is simple: I prepare something to bring that doubles as an entree for me and a side dish for everyone else that usually comes in a casserole or stew form. I make sure it contains some protein, something starchy and a green like kale or spinach. This way, I’m getting a whole meal and I get to wow everyone else with my tasty concoction. It’s a win-win.
Weddings, however, are a little trickier. Most weddings I attend are in the-middle-of-nowhere in Pennsylvania, since that’s where I’m from, and a lot of caterers there think the word “vegan” is the name of a neighboring solar system, not a way of eating. One time, while the rest of the wedding guests were feasting on roast beast, I was served veggie chow mein from the Chinese place down the street. They even served it with the chopsticks, the little soy and sweet sauce packets and the fortune cookie! I thought it was great! Besides, at a wedding, I just need something to act as a buffer between the gin and tonics and my blood stream, so as long as it’s vegan, I’m not too picky.
What is the non-vegan dish or food item that would tempt you the most if it was sitting in front of you right now?
Let me start by saying that I would never, ever, EVER eat this dish, ever again. However, there is something I grew up with called Italian Easter Pie. This was the thing that I would wait for, and actually have dreams about, all year. I would get giddy like a kid at Christmas when Easter came around. Italian Easter Pie is basically a quiche on steroids—no, not steroids, PCP. A regular piecrust gets filled with a mixture of ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella cheeses, egg, Italian sausage, ham and sometimes pepperoni. Aunts and grandmothers would make dozens of them and deliver them to various friends and family around town. The cruel joke of the whole thing was they would be delivered on Good Friday—the day during Lent where we COULD NOT eat meat. I would check on my Easter Pie every hour or so in the fridge until midnight struck. Then I would carve out two servings for myself—one to heat up in the microwave and one to eat cold while I waited. It was that good! I haven’t gotten around to veganizing Italian Easter Pie yet, but I believe it can be done. I will keep you posted.
What is the sexiest thing you’ve ever eaten?
There is a restaurant in Tarzana, California, called Madeleine Bistro. This is definitely the best vegan restaurant in the universe—it may even be the best inter-dimensionally, but I have not been able to prove that yet. They have a starter on their menu called Red Beet Tartare. It is their signature dish. When you look around at the tables, everyone has one. I once had one as a starter and then ordered another for dessert. True story. It’s comprised of chopped beets artfully placed atop a warm tofu cheese crouton, and it’s served with thinly sliced cucumbers and a balsamic glaze. The best way to describe this “cheese crouton” is that it’s like a breaded and deep fried piece of goat cheese—warm and creamy with an outer crunch. This dish has different textures and temperatures and a beautiful balance of savory and sweet. It is the perfect dish. I’m getting a bit chubbed up, right now just thinking about it. Now that’s sexy.