Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jami, Vegan Chef to the Stars!

When I quit my job in finance, I had never cooked anything without the use of a microwave. (Okay, that’s not quite true. I once made a loaf of beer bread – under the influence of many beers – to take to a rooftop party, and the guests made a collective decision to throw it off the roof.) The first meal I ever made for my husband was a Gardenburger patty with a slice of American cheese melted on top, doused in hot sauce – no bun. I’m flabbergasted that he agreed to marry me knowing that he faced a lifetime of similar meals.

Lucky for him, the sheer boredom of unemployment drove me to download a recipe and – for the very first time – cook a legitimate meal. Over the course of several weeks, I figured out how to make rice, fry onions, and measure flour. I learned the hard way the difference between a clove of garlic and a bulb of garlic.

A month into my flirtation with cooking, my husband and I decided to try being vegan, mostly for health reasons. We made this decision during a night of binge drinking, when I make all of my important decisions. I cannot stress enough what a drastic change this was for us. We lived in New York City, home to some of the best restaurants in the world, and our diet revolved entirely around meat and cheese. I still have dreams about the filet mignon at Sparks, the pizza at Grimaldi’s, the buttermilk pancakes at Clinton Street Baking Company, the truffle ricotta gnocchi at Jane…

…Wait, what was I talking about? Right, so we became committed vegans. I bought my very first cookbook: Isa Moskowitz’s Vegan with a Vengeance. Best purchase ever. I now own a dozen vegan cookbooks, and hers are still my favorites.

Cooking a vegan meal is a true test of one’s culinary abilities. If you grate cheddar or parmesan-reggiano over anything, the end result tastes okay – it’s cheating. As a vegan chef, you rely entirely on your spice rack. I didn’t own any spices, let alone a spice rack. It took me several months to build up my collection. It now includes everything from tarragon to mustard powder to anise, and my personal favorite: asafoetida, otherwise known as “devil's dung” or “stinking gum.” I call it “ass-feet” because that is exactly what it smells like. Ironically, it reduces flatulence. And it makes a sublime curry. On the downside, my entire apartment smells like an Indian restaurant.

During last year’s New York Wine and Food Festival, I dragged my husband to Alicia Silverstone’s vegan cooking demonstration, where we happened to be seated next to Gail Simmons. I had graduated from non-cook to rubbing elbows with the culinary elite!

Naturally, my new half-baked career idea is to open a vegan restaurant. I suspect it will be a trendy hot spot for the many vegan celebrities: Zooey Deschanel, Natalie Portman, Ellen DeGeneres, Sandra Oh, Avril Lavigne, Tobey Maguire, Kevin Nealon, Jason Mraz, Prince, Weird Al Yankovic, Mike Tyson… The list goes on and on. I might even get the chance to serve my famous seitan piccata to Oprah on one of her 21-day vegan cleanse diets. As an added perk, my new celebrity friends will open doors for me in Hollywood, so I'll be an Oscar-winning screenwriter in no time!

Of course, I’ve never particularly liked Los Angeles, and I don’t think many celebrities frequent the fine dining establishments in Texas. Also, I hear restaurants have a notoriously high failure rate. Not to mention, I might be labeled a hypocrite because I still occasionally slip up and indulge in something non-vegan. (Classic example: my husband and I attended a wedding, drank too much, spotted a Pizza Hut sign from our hotel window, and ran down a very steep hill, in the rain, in search of pepperoni pizza.)

Still, I’m keeping “vegan chef to the stars” on my list of potential careers.

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