Alan Roettinger reminds me of an editor I once worked with. The fashion editor in question longed for the days when men and women dressed as if they gave a damn—not just for special occasions, but for going to the grocery store, doing laundry, whatever—instead of just throwing on jeans and a T-shirt. Private chef Roettinger has the same wish, except his centers around food: Even if we’re pressed for time, he believes, we should still be able to create elegant, flavorful dishes. To that end he wrote Speed Vegan: Quick, Easy Recipes With a Gourmet Twist. I asked the recent vegan about his inspiration for the book and how plant-based life is treating him.
Roseann Marulli Rodriguez: Hi, Alan. Thanks so much for speaking with SuperVegan.
I love the idea behind your book. I think most people get lazy and make the same dishes over and over just because they’re easy. I personally eat way more frozen meat analogs than I should probably admit to in public. What gave you the idea for the book?
Alan Roettinger: After my first book, Omega 3 Cuisine (vegetarian, with small bits of egg and dairy, but mostly vegan), Book Publishing Company and I were eager to work together again, so I asked for a project. After some deliberation, they handed me Vegan Quick—recipes that could be made in 30 minutes or less. If you’ve read my introduction, you know this was a little unusual for me; I normally spend as long as it takes to make fine food. It was a good exercise for me!
Roseann: When you started the book you weren’t vegan. So why a vegan cookbook?
Alan: As a private chef, my job has always been to work within the parameters of my clients’ diets and preferences, and I took this on in that spirit. It was a project involving food—I was born for this!
Roseann: Just before printing you started eating vegan and were feeling great. Congrats! Have you stuck with it?
Alan: Thank you! I have stuck with it—commitment is like that. I’d done considerable reading about factory farming even before the idea of writing a vegan cookbook came up, and of course I’d been eating all the food that eventually became the recipes in the book. While the book was in the last stages of the editorial process, I read Eating Animals, an exquisitely written book by Jonathan Safran Foer, which struck me as much by what was said as by what was not (no moralizing, no judgment). The decision occurred in my doctor’s office, when he was insisting I start taking statins to lower my cholesterol, which was on a steady upward trend. I’d been eating quite well by American standards—no fast food junk, no refined carbs, mostly plants, organic, etc.—and getting a lot of exercise. I’d also tried natural alternatives (oats, red yeast rice), but the numbers kept creeping upward. So I told my doctor I was going to go on a strict vegan diet and train to run the Pikes Peak Ascent the following year. I’d never been a runner. He was dubious. I never looked back. In six months my cholesterol fell from 289 to 130. And I did run the Pikes Peak Ascent. Ha-ha!
Roseann: Good for you! How’d you do?
Alan: I ran it in 5 hours 20 minutes. To be honest, most people don’t run all the way, especially above tree line. I was never out of breath, though, which is pretty important to note, since the conventional non-wisdom figures the lack of red meat in my diet would result in a lower red blood cell count, meaning less oxygenation. What slowed me down was the cramping in my legs and feet—damn things wouldn’t stay on task. I did run across the finish line, though, which ain’t bad for a guy 57 years old. My (younger) brother-in-law, who’s been running the Ascent every year for 20 years, beat me by only 10 minutes.
A plant-fueled Roettinger crosses the Pikes Peak Ascent finish line. Go, vegan!
Roseann: That’s pretty impressive! How do you feel now?
Alan: Fantastic, thank you for asking.
Roseann: So are you going to stay vegan?
Alan: I should make one thing clear at this point: I’m a human being. Human beings are by nature omnivorous, meaning we can eat anything we want. I’ve been steadily refining my choices throughout my life according to what works for me. Right now I’m eating strictly plant-based foods because I feel much better this way (and part of feeling the way I feel is because I’m not killing anything). But I haven’t stopped the refining process. I know vegans who aren’t very healthy, in part because they don’t eat very well—their focus is not participating in cruelty to animals, which is noble, but their choices are perpetrating a form of cruelty to their own bodies. So I find that it’s paramount to stay focused on life’s ultimate purpose (joy) and goal (to awaken). What I eat will change according to my needs and what I learn about health and what works; my purpose and my goal have not changed since I was born a human being. That said, I will add this about continuing my vegan diet: I have no reason to go back.
Roseann: So has it changed the way you look at food?
Alan: No, I still love food, and I love making food that thrills the palate. It has changed the way I look at farm animals, though.
The Peanut Sauce for the Tempeh Sticks—coconut milk, cilantro, Sriracha sauce, ginger, agave, lemongrass, salt and dry-roasted peanuts—is ridiculously delicious! It’s amazing over the pan-fried tempeh and great on its own—I couldn’t stop dipping my finger in the bowl and sucking it clean. My husband, not normally a fan of sweets, said the sweet-spicy flavor would probably pair well with dark chocolate. Hmm…
Roseann: Each recipe should take under half an hour to prepare. Does that include prep time? Why 30 minutes?
Alan: This was the challenge set before me: 30 minutes or less, all prep included. The only exception is that some recipes include what I refer to as “Jump Starts” in the first section, which are a few preparations that make it quicker and easier to turn out interesting fare in the allotted half-hour.
Roseann: They might be quick, but your recipes have a more dressed-up feel to them. Was that intentional?
Alan: Absolutely! I do this for a living. My preference is always to do my best to present food in the most pleasing way possible. This doesn’t always mean complicated or laborious; it simply means going to whatever lengths are necessary to create a pleasurable eating experience. We only go around once (that we know of).
Roseann: They also have a very Asian flare. Is that your specialty?
Alan: My specialty is rich people—whatever they want, I make it look good, smell good and taste good. I also try to make it so that good health results, which isn’t always possible when the client is bent on eating things that are destined to fall short (to put it as generously as I can). I do lean heavily in the Asian direction because I love the complex flavor profiles and the variety of textures, but in this book I also favor these cuisines because they naturally incorporate a lot of vegetables and plant-based protein. It’s a no-brainer.
The Tofu and Soba Noodles With Hot-Sweet-Sour-Pungent Sauce was tasty and satisfying. At first I thought I should have gone a little lighter on the tomato puree, but the longer the flavors sat, the sweetness of the tomato mellowed, and the dish’s perfectly balanced seasoning revealed itself.
Roseann: Will you continue to cook whatever your rich people demand?
Alan: In my view, compassion begins with the self and must be shown to all living things in order to be genuine. Although I no longer eat animals, I do understand that everyone is at a different point in their own personal evolution. No one forced me to eat the way I eat now; I came to this on my own. So yes, if my clients want prime rib, lobster and caviar, my job will be to present those creatures in a way that does justice to their sacrifice. If this strikes anyone out there as a compromise on my part, then I would humbly request that they help find me some wealthy vegan clients.
Roseann: We’re on the case!
Now, I thought I knew my way around the kitchen, but you incorporate ingredients I’d never heard of. Take Sriracha sauce, for example. Why so far off the beaten path?
Alan: The beaten path is, well, beaten! I’ve never wanted to stay in one place or follow the herd, so to speak. I grew up in Mexico, lived for a time in Europe and traveled to every continent. Why would I not want to reach out with my palate and skill to include as many different options as possible? When I finally moved to the United States, in the ’70s, I was shocked by the monoculture, the lack of fresh, varied produce. You couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee or a decent loaf of bread, let alone anything that vaguely approached what I’d become accustomed to. Now, fortunately, we live in a global village, so a lot of what one had to travel around the world to find is within the average city dweller’s reach. Sriracha sauce is catching up with ketchup as the condiment of choice. How cool is that?
Roseann: Very! So what’s your favorite recipe from the book?
Alan: I’m not the one to ask which is most popular; I don’t have the data to answer with any authority. And they’re all my favorites—if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have made it into the book! I made a bunch of things that didn’t make the cut.
After the Chocolate Pots de Crème set in the fridge, they have a solid, mousse-like consistency. I don’t usually add basil and black peppercorns to my desserts, but the flavors that really sing through are the orange zest and chocolate. Yum!
Roseann: There are a lot of salads in the book. Is that your go-to meal when you’re pressed for time?
Alan: Salads are actually fairly labor-intensive compared to many other things. I think they’re my go-to meal most often because they are what my body loves the most. I can almost hear it singing to me, thanking me and praising my wisdom when I eat fresh, succulent, beautiful salads. Mmmm.
Roseann: You incorporate some tofu and seitan, but most of your dishes are vegetable-centric. Are you anti-meat substitute?
Alan: I try not to be anti-anything; it limits my ability to understand. I just don’t feel the need to substitute meat. If I want it that bad, I can always just go ahead and eat it. The way I see it, if you’re going to leave something behind, it makes no sense to bring it with you. The world is full of interesting, exciting, highly gratifying things to eat. So why try to fool myself into thinking I’m eating something I now find repugnant?
Roseann: Understood. So what’s next for you?
Alan: I’m writing a third cookbook, due out in 2012. And of course, there’s the promotion of Speed Vegan, which has been a hugely enjoyable experience so far; I look forward to meeting and speaking with more and more people. I also hope to get my blog started, finally, by the middle of December.
Roseann: Great! We’ll keep an eye out for all of that. Thanks so much for chatting with us, Alan.
Alan: No! Thank YOU!!!