Aaron Adams knows a thing or two about making vegan food taste delicious. That was certainly my conclusion after eating at Farm Spirit, his dinner club style restaurant located in Portland, Oregon. At a cozy, 14-seat counter, he and his chefs prepare and serve a series of small dishes, featuring produce, grains, and nuts from local farms — none of which are more than 105 miles from the restaurant. By the end of the meal — up to 13 courses in all — you might imagine you’d have to roll home. Not so. Aaron’s light touch leaves you feeling satisfied, not over-stuffed. What’s more, there’s a lovely smug feeling that comes with consuming what might just have been one of the healthiest meals of your life. Recently, I had the chance to ask him about what inspires his ultra-healthy cooking style, and how home cooks might up their vegan game.
Healthy Eats: How long have you been eating vegan and what inspired you to make the change?
Aaron Adams: I’ve been a vegan for 12 years now. It wasn’t an overnight thing. At the first restaurant I owned in Jacksonville, Florida, I started out by serving foie gras! But the more I learned about the practices involved, the more I couldn’t stomach it. After taking foie gras off the menu, I started asking more and more questions of my purveyors. I even took my cooks to a slaughterhouse to see what the animals went through to get to our restaurant! Eventually, I decided that I couldn’t ethically serve meat anymore and I shut down the restaurant.
HE: Do you think that vegan diets are healthier?
AA: Yes! I’m a big guy and I had high cholesterol and high blood pressure before going vegan. I got those numbers way down and I lost 100 pounds. Now, I actually have very low cholesterol. I can’t conclusively say that it’s the healthiest diet for everyone, but it’s been a healthier way for me to eat. And it’s definitely better for the environment!
HE: What do you do to stay fit?
AA: I do power lifting 4 days a week and I’m on a power-lifting team. I can bench press 300 pounds, and deadlift 500. A lot of people say you can’t get enough protein to build strength from a vegan diet, but I say ‘hogwash!’ Besides eating vegan ‘mock meats’ I drink smoothies made with pea protein. Pea protein is the best for weight lifting because it doesn’t have too much fiber — it’s also great stirred into a pancake or waffle batter.
HE: Before you opened your latest restaurant, Farm Spirit, you owned another restaurant called Portobello Vegan Trattoria. What’s different about the new place?
AA: With Portobello, we wanted to create a restaurant that was vegan but would also be accessible to non-vegans. We went with Italian because most people have an idea of what Italian food is. We also liked the spirit of Italian cuisine with its emphasis on fresh, local ingredients. Ultimately, I opened Farm Spirit because I love doing small plates and tasting menus, and I wanted to focus even more on local ingredients. Farm Spirit is really hyper-local cuisine. But it’s not just about being local, it’s about creating a new cuisine with a bio-regional identity. We are really serving a modern interpretation of ‘Cascadian’ food — the food grown and enjoyed in the Northwest.
HE: Can you share a secret tip for making vegan food delicious?
AA: One thing people can do to add dimension to vegan food is to use the power of fermentation. That will give any dish you make a more complex flavor, not to mention adding in healthy probiotics. I like to say that fermented foods fill in the flavor gaps. We use a lot of nut yogurts at the restaurant for this purpose. We also ferment Hakurei turnips and purée them to make a sauce with a wonderful acidity to it. Then we take that purée and fold it into sautéed vegetables. That’s something you can do at home, too, by whizzing up some sauerkraut in a blender with some of the brine and a bit of oil. You can then use that to dress all sorts of vegetables. Really, anything you can do to add brightness to your food — acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar — will help make the flavor pop.
HE: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about a vegan diet?
AA: I always say that people who have had a bad vegan meal hold onto that experience too hard. I mean, they’ve had thousands of bad omnivorous meals, but they still keep going back for more, right? Part of the problem is the concept. What even is the definition of vegan food? To me, it means having a meal that is purposefully free of animal products. People object to vegan diets because they think it means they have to give up something. I say, stop worrying about having choices taken away from you, and think more about making healthy choices for yourself and the environment. For people who live in communities with good access to ingredients, it’s really not necessary to eat meat. I would never say you should feel guilty about not being vegan. If you’re poor or live in a food desert or have kids to feed, it might not be an option. But for many people, it’s just not that difficult.
HE: What is your favorite lazy-man dinner to cook at home when you’re short of time?
AA: At home, I use more convenience products, I’ll admit it. I’ve been cooking all day! I cook vegan burgers, or make a salad and top it with a vegan ravioli and a nice tomato ragú. Probably the dinner I eat the most at home involves sautéing up a lot of different colored veggies — whatever I have on hand — like peppers, carrots, squash or whatever’s in season, along with some tempeh. On the side, I’ll have a baked potato. Another yummy meal my wife came up with is Asian tacos. We pick up some steamed bao buns at an Asian market and serve them stuffed with BBQ tofu and a spicy slaw of cabbage and carrots dressed with a Sriracha lime-mayo.
HE: What vegetable doesn’t get enough love, in your opinion?
AA: I always say that kohlrabi is that veggie you let rot in the bottom of your CSA box or produce drawer. People just don’t realize what you can do with cruciferous veggies, like kohlrabi, cabbage and cauliflower. They are so savory, particularly when roasted.
HE: Favorite season of the year for cooking?
AA: The next one! I’m just excited about what’s happening next. If I had to say, I would pick Spring. When I see that first asparagus I get pretty emotional. The winter stuff is running out by March, but there’s hardly anything fresh to eat yet. When the nettles and Miner’s lettuce show up at the market, I think ‘We made it!’
HE: Favorite vegan junk food?
AA: There’s so many! Do I have to answer only one? Justin’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups. I also really like Stonewall’s Jerquee. It’s an old-school vegan snack —basically just flavored soy protein — but it’s darn tasty.
Abigail Chipley is a freelance recipe developer, writer and cooking teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon.