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Between the proliferation of vegan restaurants, markets, and products, some would say that there’s never been a better time to be a vegan. But for local chef, culinary Olympiad, cookbook author, founder of Eco-Cuisine natural foods, and longtime vegan Ron Pickarski, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the plant-based foods world. Pickarski grew up surrounded by food in his parents’ Michigan restaurant, attended culinary school in the ’60s, and became a vegan shortly thereafter in an effort to take control of his health. His illustrious career includes winning the gold medal at the 1980 culinary Olympics for a vegetarian dish and penning various cookbooks (his latest, the Classical Vegetarian Cookbook (Eco-Cuisine Inc., 2015), serves as a comprehensive manual to herbivorous cuisine). Lately, however, Pickarski has set his focus on Eco-Cuisine, his line of plant-based mixes. We caught up with the Boulder-based food technologist to discuss the role of convenience products in the future of vegan cuisine.
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5280: Considering that you’ve been a vegan chef for decades, you’ve likely seen a big shift in public perception—and acceptance—of vegetarian food. In fact, meat alternatives have been one of the fastest growing trends in food as of late. What sort of role do vegan convenience products (like your Eco-Cuisine dry mixes) play in the development of this cuisine?
[When I became vegan] I was way ahead of my time. I went to culinary school and I actually took a meat certification course, and about a month after that I became a vegetarian. And six months after that a vegan. People thought that I was crazy. So there I was, a classically trained chef, cooking vegan, and not knowing how to cook vegan. I was just sort of figuring it out. It was very difficult because we didn’t have the tools to work with. That’s why in my first cookbook I developed a recipe where I’d take soy milk, because it was so bad, and I would blend it with 50 percent water and cashews to neutralize the flavor. It came out really nice, it made really nice sauces. But that’s the kind of stuff I had to do back then. Now, I can buy decent soy milk on a shelf.
RP: Shortly after I became vegan, I started getting calls to do dinners and stuff. It was the 1980s, and I did the first one at the Hyatt for about 400. From that day on, for about 15 years, it was always, the food is expensive and it’s very labor intensive. So I figured there’s a market for that. Why don’t I create something for vegans that’s less labor intensive? My seitan was the first thing I came up with. When I used to make it, it took two to three hours just to make a couple of pounds. Now, I can make a couple pounds in 10 minutes with my mix. It made a big difference. My prepared foods are really like dry mixes. The reason I did it is that I wanted to address a need in the food-service industry. They can do this inexpensively, and they can do this with minimum labor and minimum skill. So you can take my chicken quick mix and my chicken broth and you can do anything you’d do with chicken on your menu. Cold cuts, galantine, Southern fried, drumsticks, breasts, coq au vin, barbecue, sandwiches, whatever. It’s a time-saver, but it also saves a lot on food costs.