David Lee has been around the Tofurky block a few times. The chef had been creating vegan meat and vegetarian alternatives that emphasize, not disguise, their fresh vegetable, herb and whole-grain ingredients long before he cofounded Seattle’s Field Roast Grain Meat Company in 1997.
In an interview with TakePart, Lee discusses how the vegan Hazelnut Cranberry Roast En Croute holiday menu options have improved since the early years of imitation bologna.
TakePart: How have the vegetarian and vegan markets changed since you started in the business?
DL: It’s been amazing, especially watching how the vegan lifestyle has become so much more mainstream. When we started the company 15 years ago, even we really didn’t use the word “vegan.” It was on our label, but for marketing purposes we used “vegetarian” because that’s what our customers understood. Today, you’re seeing vegan products and menus everywhere. I was just looking at the menu for a Goodwill fundraiser in Seattle this weekend, and they’re serving a vegan miso-braised tofu alternative to the main chicken course. You really didn’t see that vegan meat option as recently as 10 years ago.
TP: Do you think the vegetarian lifestyle is shifting to become a vegan one?
DL: Yes, in some ways “vegetarian” is becoming less relevant as a term. It’s vegan, or not vegan, in this transitional phase we are currently in. Vegan today means more than just a plant-based diet, as it once did. Menus are offering vegan options, not just vegetarian—it’s more practical. You can see it elsewhere, too. It’s almost as if the Vegetarian Times is the baby boomer version of the lifestyle, what we used to do, and VegNews and veganism is more edgy and contemporary.
TP: How have vegan products changed over the years?
DL: Back in the 1980s and even before that, vegan products were dumbed down. They were about imitating animal meat directly and literally. There was also this idea that if a product didn’t have animal meat in it, it should cost less. From a production side, the mantra became about the least amount of ingredients you could put into a product: a little protein, some natural flavorings, that was really it. That’s why they didn’t taste good. You have to put more ingredients, more flavors, to make any product taste wonderful. We’re all about making our products using the simple tenets of good cooking. We’re going to use the same bag of tricks that a home cook does to make something tasty—fresh vegetables, garlic, spices. And we’re certainly going to use fat. That’s something vegan manufacturers didn’t used to do, and it really affected flavor.
TP: Breaking into the consumer market with a new take on vegan meat products must have been tricky.
DL: It was a very difficult market to get into when we started the business. There was also this whole logistical side. Many vegan and vegetarian products had a 120-day shelf life because there were no vegetables in them, so they had no water activity (spoilage potential). They were also cheap to make, so you could get fake turkey slices for $1.99. We had a product with a relatively short shelf life because it had so many ingredients, which also meant we had a higher price point. But we were convinced that people were willing to pay for quality and flavor. When I think about what Whole Foods has done, it’s what we’ve tried to do: marry natural foods with the specialty foods and gourmet markets. There is a demographic today that says, “Hey, we want natural food, but we also want it to be good. We want something beyond the lentil burger.”
TP: What vegan meat products do you recommend this time of year? Are we beyond Tofurky?
DL: I actually do like Tofurkey deli slices. Hey, they’re good! But I would say the most significant, exciting product I’ve seen recently is a vegan cheese from a company in Minneapolis, Punk Rawk Labs. Their raw cashew cheese is incredible. Products in Europe, too, tend to be high quality. I think the Germans make the highest quality vegan meat products in our grain meat category. It makes sense. They’re sausage makers and follow traditional cooking practices. They’re smoking their grain sausages and experimenting like we try to do.
TP: Any Thanksgiving-specific ideas?
DL: At home, I often make a fresh nut-grain loaf for my family, or I might do our hazelnut-cranberry loaf. I’m doing a chef event for FareStart, the nonprofit I started. It’s a Thanksgiving-themed menu. We’re breading and deep frying a Celebration Roast, so it gets crispy, and then baking it. We’ll serve it with a blackberry beurre blanc sauce, but you could do any sauce, something more traditional. For sides, we’re making a wild rice mushroom timbale, a South Indian succotash with curry leaves and black mustard seed. Actually, I might have to do something like that for Thanksgiving!
Have your ever tried vegan meat? How was it? Let us know in the comments!